FRANKFORT — Three months into cancer treatment, Sharon Givens waits for yet another bus ride to the doctor, tugging at the ebony wig on her head. In all of her 52 years, she has never had long hair. She can't much tolerate it now.
She doesn't wear the wig often, but last Wednesday the weather had turned colder so she was giving it a try. She wore it for the first time when she went to her third chemo treatment, but that was mostly to give the staff at Commonwealth Cancer Center in Frankfort a giggle. The staff and the patient have developed a mutual admiration society.
"She has had a very positive attitude," said Charlye Quenemoen, a nurse who treats Givens.
She has the kind of spirit that helps those who help her. The chemo has worsened her eyesight so she can't really see to watch television during the six hours it takes to get a treatment. She has come to know the nurses, ask about their families and their days.
"She's just a beautiful person," Quenemoen said.
The new routine
The reality of the disease and the impact of treatment has landed firmly on the family. Givens, 52, had hoped to be able to keep caring for her two young grandchildren, who are 5 years and 6 months old, but the drugs have made her so unsteady she doesn't trust herself to hold them while standing.
She has adapted to the three-week cycle: chemo, labs, doctor's visit. She has learned to do things when she can, because those days are few and fleeting.
A carefully planned trip to Wal-Mart, an effort to get groceries, banking and prescriptions taken care of in one outing, ended badly. Her sister gave her a ride, but the trip still proved taxing. Givens' legs gave out on her in the parking lot.
"I just remember feeling light-headed," she said. "I don't remember blacking out."
When she came to on the ground, her knee bleeding, her head reeling, the first thing she thought of was that she couldn't go to the hospital.
"I knew I couldn't afford that bill," she said.
She called her doctor, whose wisdom prevailed, and she went to the emergency room. The ER staff was waiting for her at the door because of her bad heart — she had quadruple-bypass surgery in 2005.
It was $1,000 to add to the bills she already can't pay.
Givens' daughter, Danyelle Jackson, whose family Givens lives with, panicked when she got a text that said "I fell."
Givens jokes that Danyelle should have known she was OK if she could function enough to work her phone. Her daughter was not amused.
Givens' family has adapted over the months of treatment. Danyelle, 25, is working nights instead of days so she can watch her children. Her husband, Will Jackson, has quit Starbucks to work at a factory for better pay and more room for advancement. They recently learned that Danyelle is pregnant with their third child.
Givens, who thought early on that she might be able to skip radiation treatment, is preparing to take her last chemo treatment, scheduled for Tuesday. That will be followed by 35 radiation treatments — five days a week for seven weeks.
Givens, who doesn't drive and used to walk everywhere, can now navigate the short, uneven walk in front of the house only if someone is there to steady her.
"I really miss being able to walk," she said. "Even just to walk to CVS. I use to go up there every day. I use to take walks with my grandson."
Danyelle said she has adapted to the role of caregiver for the woman who has always taken care of her. It's been just her and her mom for most of her life. She works at fighting off the fear of loss while getting her head around the fact that her mother, who never has liked to ask for help, can't stand long enough to cook herself a bowl of soup.
The hardest part, Danyelle said, is knowing the limits of what she can really do.
So she does what she can. Before a recent doctor's visit, Danyelle brought out a tri-fold palette of makeup to give her mother a touch-up.
Givens had gotten makeup and the wig from the Look Good, Feel Better public service group for cancer patients. But the flesh-colored makeup didn't match her skin tone, and the blue eye shadow was something Danyelle, who loves to do makeup, couldn't abide.
She instead applied from her own stash a touch of mascara and a shimmery taupe eye shadow, adding a smoky gray in the corners.
"I've never known anyone with cancer this close. I can't do anything to make her feel better," Danyelle said. "This fight is a fight she has to fight for herself."
Wearied by the treatments, Givens' initial optimism has waned. "I am being realistic, it can come back," even after radiation, she said. "I don't know what will happen."
For now, she's hoping the doctor will grant her a couple of week's reprieve from chemo. She wants to put off her last treatment until after her alma mater, Kentucky State University, celebrates homecoming next weekend.
She is not one to go to the game, but she wants to feel well enough for the weekend to go the parade, as she has since she was a child. Then she wants to go home, cook some greens and homemade macaroni and cheese and a made-from-scratch pound cake and set it out so people can come and go during the day, grab a plate and visit. A little bit of normal.
"I've tried to cook like she does," Danyelle said, "but it just doesn't taste the same.
"There's nothing like a mamma's cooking," she said.
The shuttle arrived, and Givens got on the bus, Danyelle walking her gingerly down the sidewalk in front of the house. The ebony wig is left splayed, abandoned on the couch.