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Dealing With Chemo’s Side Effects

Posted Apr 01 2009 2:52pm

ThermometerWe are on our way home tomorrow after travelling to Atlanta to speak at the Big Seminar. I think I’m still reeling from all the hugs, smiles, and well wishes I received this past weekend. It was such a wonderful experience, and I couldn’t be happier that we decided to go, in spite of all the dire warnings about how difficult it would be for me, physically, to travel away from home right now.

See, my first chemotherapy treatment occured last week, on October 17th. From what I understand, my immune system hits its lowest point in the 5–7 days that follow each treatment. That’s when my white blood cell population is at its lowest, right before they start to rebuild themselves again.

So this is the time when I am most susceptible to colds, flu, and other illnesses that I would be completely unable to fight in my weakened state. This can be extremely dangerous to people going through chemo, and if I catch a common cold, it can lead to my early demise.

And it also happened to fall right at the time we would be on an airplane, flying to Atlanta. We all know how fast diseases spread through an airplane (SARS comes to mind), so we were taking a risk to make this trip.

However, once again, the power of a positive mindset proved itself to be the biggest asset I have in my arsenal of “cancer fighting” weapons.

I am a firm believer in the Law of Attraction , that what you think about the most is what you will always attract to your life. I am well aware that my body would be at its most vulnerable during the days that follow treatment, so I set my mind to refuse to acknowledge the presence of any roaming viruses or bacterium. To put it simply, I created an image in my mind of an invisible wall around me, a wall made of the strongest material known to mankind. This wall is made of the love and positive energy sent to me by hundreds of friends and family, and it never came down, not even for a second.

The roaming buglets didn’t stand a chance. They simply were not able to get through my formidable defenses. And therefore, they didn’t exist in my world. They weren’t on my radar. They couldn’t get through. And I remained primarily healthy throughout our trip.

I did feel ill periodically. I did experience some of the side effects of chemotherapy. But never for long, and never very harsh. All because of the power of my mind to control the symptoms, and the medications I’ve been given to help me deal with this.

Some of the common side effects of going through chemotherapy include: Extreme fatigue, depressed immune system, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation, acid reflux, hair loss, uncontrollable bleeding or bruising, mouth ulcers, among many others.

Although the actual severity of the side effects vary according to each individual, and some are downright unavoidable (like hair loss), I was well aware of the possibility of most of these side effects, and was prepared for them to occur.

I knew exactly how I would handle them, and how I would use my mental imaging to stay in control of each.

Extreme fatigue?

Oh, I definitely felt that, and had no problem with letting people know when I needed to extract myself from a social situation to go take a nap. Heck, when else can I get away with napping in the middle of the day without people thinking “oh, how nice for her to be so lazy”. This is my one chance in life to actually get away from it all, practice the art of relaxation, and just sleep if I feel like it. But I also refused to let napping become my one and only hobby. I have a lot to get done in a day, and I allow myself to nap for a couple of hours, then enough is enough. Back to being a productive citizen and moving on with my day.

Depressed Immune System?

Yep, felt that too. But as I described earlier, the buglets just couldn’t get through my defenses. Although I did wake up one morning during the trip and felt the far too familiar itchy, watery eyes, scratchy throat and runny nose I’ve normally associated with “catching a cold”. My immediate thought was “Uh oh, I have a cold! This is really serious!”. And I hurriedly slammed the door shut on that thought.

Instead, I took a few moments to form a new picture in my mind. I imagined cool water soothing my throat, and my eyes instantly clearing up. I imagined my healthy sinuses and clear nasal passages. Essentially, I imagined I was the healthiest person on the planet, and I kept that image firmly planted in my mind for the rest of the day.

Guess what? By evening, I WAS the healthiest person on the planet, and all the dangerous symptoms of my cold had completely disappeared. I say dangerous because my doctor was full of warnings about how a common cold could easily lead to pneumonia in my case, and that if I experienced even the slightest fever, I was to march myself into the nearest hospital and get treated immediately.

Obviously, catching a cold while in a different country isn’t something I was willing to accept. So, I dismissed it as an option this weekend.

Loss of Appetite?

Sure, in the days that immediately followed my chemo treatment, it was like pulling teeth to get me to decide what I wanted for dinner. My poor brother, who has been an incredible help in meal preparations, desperately tried to think of unique and special concoctions that I would perhaps be able to stomach. He was usually met with an apologetic “That looks so good, but honestly, I don’t think I can eat much”.

But after a few days, this too passed, and this weekend, the room service waiters got a workout, bringing me whatever my little heart desired. My appetite may wane again (and I’m sure my thighs will be grateful for that), but in the meantime, I’m living it up in the lap of luxury, eating all the cookies I feel like and enjoying the fact that weight loss is inevitable for people going through chemo. Heck, there better be some serious perks, and weight loss seems like a great idea to me!


Now there’s a fun side effect. Yes, it too is unavoidable, but it IS controllable. First, there are some very helpful medications that have been prescribed for me that help enormously in reducing the nausea. I take them religiously, to avoid the possibility of throwing up. But, when all is said and done, chemotherapy is very strong toxin, and the body always tries to protect itself by, well, err, “getting rid of them” as fast as possible.

So, in spite of the anti-nauseants, I have occasionally felt the effects. Whenever I do get a “wave” of nausea, I use a very specific imaging technique to trick my body into behaving better.

First, I convince myself that what I’m feeling isn’t nausea, but rather…I am simply feeling hungry, and all I need do is have a cracker or two and it will pass. This usually gets rid of the sensation, or rather, it transforms it into something quite manageable. If this doesn’t work, and my body tries to persistantly convince me that “sorry, but this is the real deal, chickie”, I imagine that I am simply experiencing the sensation of being on a cruise ship, which immediately causes a flood of wonderful memories associated with our recent honeymoon. My brain busies itself with remembering all the fun things we did on our honeymoon that it “forgets” to feel badly, and the nausea passes as quickly as it arrived.

Diarrhea or Constipation?

Thankfully, there are wonderful medications that have been prescribed that manage these side effects. I don’t think you need any details on this, so… Nuff Said!

Acid Reflux?

Also one of the unavoidable ones, but is being managed by medication as well as ginger ale whenever it happens. Easily overcome. Easily managed.

Hair Loss?

Unavoidable, so I found a way to make this a fun side effect. First, I took control of it (instead of letting it control me) by hosting the shaveathon to celebrate my impending hair loss. That was step one.

Step two was to purchase a wide and colorful variety of hats, wigs, and turbans, so I could get back to my childhood memories of playing dress up for a while. In the next few months, I plan to be a blond, brunette, and redhead, all without needing to color my hair. I also intend to wear many different hats, and let my imagination run wild, sporting as many different “looks” as I like.

I even (after much persuasion by my wonderfully supportive husband) was brave enough over the past weekend to waltz around, shamelessly sporting my buzz-shaved hairdo for all the world to gawk at.

You know what? I was flooded with compliments about how people thought how much better I looked with such short hair! Now THAT I wasn’t expecting! They said they could finally see my sparkly eyes and most strongly suggested I keep my hair short when it does finally grow back in a few months. Well don’t that beat all? I’ve had my long curly locks ever since I remember, and all at once, I’m actually considering the benefits of keeping my hair pixie-elf short. Who knew?

Uncontrollable bleeding?

Well, I haven’t experienced that yet, but I don’t think I should take chances. I think I’ll leave the knife tossing for another time, and just to be safe, I’ll let other people do the food chopping for a while. Bruises do seem to last much longer than usual, but hey, I’m not trying to win any beauty contests, so I don’t really care about that.

Mouth Ulcers?

You know, I have a funny story about this particular side effect. You see, no one really told me about it ahead of time, so it wasn’t something I was prepared for. I was scheduled to speak on stage, in front of 500 people, on Saturday morning. Can you imagine my consternation when on Friday evening, I developed a weird side effect involving the mouth I would need to speak with the next day?

I felt my tongue “thicken” throughout the day, and it felt as if I had burned my tongue on a hot cup of coffee. Later that night, I chanced to look at my tongue in the mirror, and was horrified to discover that apparently, Edward Scissorhands had taken a fancy to re-styling the top of my tongue! No wonder I was starting to slur my words! And then it dawned on me that I desperately needed my tongue on stage the next day and that if this got any worse, I would be delivering a particularly comical and pathetic sounding presentation.

I quickly began an all-out assault on whatever was causing this particular problem, and spent the next few hours sucking on ice cubes, drinking water like a camel stocking up for an extended hike through the desert, and sipping milk to soothe the pain. The next morning, I woke up and ran to the mirror to check on the progress. I was very grateful to see that although the razor blade cuts were still there, the redness and swelling had decreased enough so that I no longer sounded like a lisping frog when I spoke. I got through my presentation with no one being the wiser, and was grateful to the universe for letting me off the hook without sounding drunk on stage!

The next day, I had to give another presentation, and although I heard myself lisp a few times, the crowd didn’t seem to notice, or they were too polite to mention it. Next time I go through chemo, I know that I am supposed to keep ice chips in my mouth to reduce the blood flow to my tongue. Apparently, this helps when the toxins are flowing strongest through my bloodstream, and it is supposed to help make the mouth sores a thing of the past. I hope the website I got that little tidbit from wasn’t pulling my leg, because I’m not interested in going through this again!

All in all, these side effects are not even a blip on my personal radar. I CAN get through this and still keep my sense of humour intact. None of these side effects are worth fretting over, and as long as they aren’t getting any of my attention, they seem to be getting bored with me. If they get bored with my lack of attention, maybe they’ll pick up their toys and go home! I don’t have time to play with them today, so they can just move along, thank you very much.

I am scheduled for another round of “get thee behind me, cancer” chemotherapy treatments on Thursday. I don’t expect there will be any additional news on that front for a while, as I certainly don’t expect that the ill effects are going to get any worse. I got through the first round with flying colors, as I fully intend to continue doing for the remaining months of chemo.

So, for those who have wondered “How’s Sylvie feeling?”…the answer is a resounding “Excellent! Thank you for asking.”

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