The diagnosis and treatment of cancer is frightening and exhausting, especially if you have a severe or invasive type.The chemotherapy is stronger, the radiation sessions are longer, and you suffer sickness, fatigue, hair loss, even possible radiation burns. What most people don’t know, is that these treatments can cause you to suffer physical discomfort for the rest of your life. This is an account of my experience with the after-effects of chemo and radiation.
Two Years After Treatment
My hair has grown back. I even have some curl to my once stick-straight hair. It’s so fine, like baby’s hair, and thinner than it was. But I don’t mind, because at least I have hair now. I have eyebrows and eyelashes again, all sparser than before. Brow pencil and mascara can fix that, so that is not a big concern. I still have to see my oncologist every six months. I am forgetful, though; I still have “chemo-brain”, just as when I was receiving the drugs. I tire quickly, and my energy level is still not what it use to be. My oncologist laughs it off, and jokes that just like him, I am getting old. I’m 55, but I feel so much older.
My skin has gotten so thin, especially on my face, neck, and hands. I start to get small, mysterious, red spots on my hands, arms, and legs. They quickly spread into large bruises. My oncologist orders some blood work, and we discover my blood isn’t clotting normally.
I have a low level of platelets, and get a Vitamin K injection,take an iron supplement. Another blood test the following month shows it is back to normal, but it happens again. And again. I begin to worry about it, wondering if this is the onset of a new cancer. Finally, three months pass without another incident. I still tire easily, and lack energy.
I had been “up-graded” to yearly appointments, but now am back to every three months for blood work and exams. The fact that I show no signs of my cancer is encouraging, but I am growing weary of these visits. I thought after five years had passed, cancer-free, these check-ups would cease. My doctor informs me that, although there are no signs of cancer, I am in remission. The cancer had invaded my lymph nodes, and in can spread anywhere, at any time. Diagnosed with bi-polar type II ten years ago, I feel my depression increasing. My medication has to be increased, but I still worry constantly about every ache and pain.
My hair has thinned even more. I can now see more pink scalp when I comb my hair, like my mother did at age 80. I am 63, and start to look at wigs. I try one, but don’t like it. It’s itchy and hot, and I think it looks so fake. My lashes are so short, my optometrist can not clasp them in her fingertips to exam under my eyelid. Even though I am diligent with skin care, new wrinkles and lines on my face seem to appear daily.
My “chemo-brain” is made worse by a series of stressful events and normal aging. My joints are deteriorating, and I need total knee replacement. I need carpal tunnel surgery. Arthritis claims my hands, neck, and spine. I change oncologists, and he tells me these things have been made worse by the chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The treatments have saved my life, so far, but they also made me physically older than I should be.
Other cancer survivors are experiencing the same things that I am, but are too embarrassed to mention their aches, pains, fatigue, etc. Like myself, they don’t want people to think they are using cancer as an excuse for their poor health, fatigue, or forgetfulness. Many aren’t aware that what they are going through is normal for some survivors.
I was fortunate to find “Cancer Survivor’s Community”, a place where others who are experiencing similar after-effects of treatment will support each other on the “bad days”. Cancer Survivors Network I also was fortunate to find an oncologist who explained that these complaints were normal for someone who had stage 3B invasive cancer, and received aggressive treatment, like I did.
After 12 ½ years in remission, I still need check-ups and tests for a recurrence of cancer. I am disappointed that I don’t feel, or look, as well as I thought I would at my age. I do what I can to stay as healthy as possible, eating the right foods, and getting exercise. I take vitamins and supplements, and practice yoga.
I would like to note that I do not feel bad every day. There are good days, when I have some extra energy, and generally feel better. I take advantage of them, but try not to over-do.
It makes it easier to know these long-term effects of my treatment are a normal, although unpleasant, part of the process of surviving cancer. I can stop blaming myself for not being as healthy and vibrant as other survivors.
My husband and children have told me they are thankful I am still with them, no matter how forgetful and tired I may be at times. I remind myself of that, and decide it was worth it.
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