I have finished my first cycle of chemotherapy and am about ready to start my second cycle. A cycle for me is three weeks of chemo and then a week off. I have noticed several side effects already.
First of all, the exhaustion is just overwhelming. I have never been so tired in my whole life. I would love nothing more than to just lie in bed all day, every day, but that just is not in my personality.
Secondly, I get nauseous. I have not thrown up yet, but I often feel queasy. Thirdly, I have had digestive problems. One week this sent me to the ER to get straightened out. Fourth, I can tell my immune systems is working over time, because I have gotten sick with a respiratory bug for the first time in a few years. Not a huge deal right now, but I hope the cough, sore throat and stuffy nose do not evolve into something that might threaten my treatment plan. My blood levels are still in the normal range, but they have dropped already from where they started. The oncologist said not to be surprised if we have to alter my chemo schedule at some point.
Fifth, my skin is very dry. This is common and not a serious problem, although sometimes the itching makes drives me a little batty.
Sixth, while I have not yet noticed hair thinning on my head, I have noticed that I rarely have to shave my legs and underarms these days. I used to shave every day and now I could get by probably once per week. I am sure this is affecting the hair on my head, but I have so much that I have not yet noticed.
Seventh, I think the chemo is messing up my menstrual cycles. I have not gotten a period since before I started chemo. This is also a normal side effect, but unlike many women who wish to be rid of their periods, I want to hang onto mine for as long as possible. I hope my cycles come back after the chemo is over and that I am not being permanently pushed into an early menopause. I have come to find a certain comfort in the routine of my body’s cycles, and I know that there is a protective effect for bone health that goes away when a woman goes into menopause.
Finally, I get muscle cramps. This is not the end of the world, but it definitely limits some of my physical activity. I asked the doctor about this side effect at my appointment this week, and he thinks the chemo is affecting my glycogen stores. My electrolytes are still in the normal range, so he thinks my glycogen is being depleted.
My doctor asked if I had noticed any changes in my body. Well, yes, of course. I have not really gained weight, but the insult of major abdominal surgery followed by the start of chemo has resulted in a new softness to my body that was not there before. I used to routinely run 70-100 mile weeks depending on what I was training for, and lift weights 3-4 times per week. Now the longest run I have done is a half marathon. I couldn’t lift anything over 10 lbs for six weeks following surgery and now I find I am so exhausted that I may get a run in but I have trouble following that up with weights. Furthermore, my port makes a lot of upper body exercises uncomfortable or downright painful.
I have always had a conflicted relationship with my body. When I was young, I could never have a low enough body fat level. My thighs were too big. My stomach was not flat enough. I was horribly cruel in my own self assessment.
When I got pregnant for the first time at age 28, allowing myself to grow large and round was mentally difficult. I had worked in the fitness industry and spent a lot of time in front of people in front or a mirror. Giving birth to a baby girl changed something in my brain. I remember having an epiphany one day and telling myself, “you don’t have the right to screw up your daughter with body image issues.”
It was around this time that I had become a runner. I ran my first marathon, the Mississippi gulf coast marathon, when Riley was 11 months old. I was so incredibly proud of myself when I crossed that finish line. I went on to run the Mardi Gras marathon seven weeks later. I was hooked. More and more races followed, and I started to appreciate my body more for what it could do than what it looked like. Getting away from that gym mirror and being outside to challenge myself was liberating and helped me to over come a lot of my body image issues.
This past summer, I finished my first 100 mile race at the Vermont 100. Running that far is definitely not something you do for health purposes. It is hard on the body. I remember the morning after the race, prior to going to the awards ceremony, looking at my bloated belly and swollen feet and ankles. I absolutely did not care what I looked like. The puffiness somehow became a badge of honor. I wondered how in the hell I could have ever been so cruel to my body when my body was capable of doing such amazing things.
That feeling has carried me through until now. I look at my abdomen that looks like a jigsaw puzzle. I have a scar from having an open appendectomy years ago. I have a scar from my breasts to my navel from when half my pancreas and spleen were removed. I have a large lump and scar in my chest from my port. So far my body has not failed me. Yes, I have been invaded by an alien life form (cancer), and it has beaten me down a bit, but it has not defeated me.
I know the changes I see in my body over these next few months of chemo will not be positive ones. I hope I can continue to be in awe of what my body can do, rather than what it looks like. Prior to my surgery, I thought running 100 miles was hard. Little did I realize, it was just the warm up for what was to come. I hope as time goes on, that I can continue to be kind to myself. Getting my diagnosis, and going through what I have already gone through has made me realize that the people who love me will never care about the size of my biceps, the flatness of my stomach, the girth of my thighs. I know they, and I, just want more time together. We need more time.