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Chemo, Septic Systems and Superfund Sites

Perhaps the last thing anybody wants to think about during chemo is a sewer system. If you live in a rural area, however, getting advice about how to pamper your septic system can be helpful.
PUBLISHED September 04, 2018
Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website:

Living apart from urban amenities such as sewer systems, I have always tried to baby my septic system, from flushing minimal amounts of biodegradable toilet paper to using septic-safe cleaning products. Even toothpaste is something to think about. One thing I did not research when I should have, however, was how to tend to a septic system during chemo.

I did know to protect other people from urine. The nurses in the chemo unit were clear the first day I was infused. They told me to take precautions for 48 hours. "Close lid, flush three times," I wrote in my journal. "Get out of plumbing! Avoid sharing." In the event of an accident, they said, "wash separately two times in hot water."

Although my septic system is pumped periodically, I did not think about asking for additional advice during chemo. Once I got my brain back, though, I began to worry about the effects of chemo on septic systems. Some days, even now, I stare at the drain field. Does the yard look the same? Are trees growing properly?

Not far from where I live, there is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site where an industry operated in that community many years. The abandoned acres always draw my attention when I am hiking down a rails-to-trail path across from the property still fenced off from civilization. Much of the harm has dissipated over the years, but not all. For example, fishing in a nearby river still warrants a health advisory.

I always worry about the wild ducks when I see them splashing in a creek on the other side of the fence. I worry about the wild turkeys that do not know how to read signs that say, "Keep Out." These fowl fly into the superfund site anyway. I worry about all the critters that scavenge for food in the overgrown woods. I worry about the wild grapes that grow on my side of the fence.

Is my yard equivalent to a superfund site? No, it is not. In fact, the wooded area is flourishing with wildflowers. There is no evidence of harm to the yard. Even so, I still wish I had spent more time understanding the effects of chemo on septic systems even as my traditional practices came in handy.

While septic systems create their own bacteria, supplements may need to be added to the mix. Because that has always been my practice, I did err on the side of caution during chemo without knowing it. Just in case chemo interferes with the ecosystem, though, additional pumping may be called for. To know what to do, and when, you need to consult a professional.

Before you finish all the to-do lists we write when surviving cancer, add another item to the list: "Do not forget the septic." Open up to the people who service your septic system. Tell them about your chemo. Bottom line, if you live in a rural area as I do, be a little proactive in maintenance.


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