Life after cancer has its own physical and emotional challenges.
Kim is a nursing student who is hoping to find her place amongst the phenomenal oncology nurses and doctors who cared for her sister. She loves reading, volunteering and enjoying the outdoors of Colorado.
Cancer does a phenomenal job of stealing away many things in our lives. One of the worst things that cancer does is create change. While I have written about many positive changes, this is not always the case. It was hard enough to watch my sister spend so much time in clinical settings, but it was also difficult because when you did spend time with her, she was not always present. She was often so tired that she would drift off mid-conversation.
She would float in and out of states of awareness. When we talk about all that happened, there are many memories that she cannot recall. It is sad to say that not only did cancer steal away that time, but even in its aftermath, it is now stealing away the precious memories that were made.
Cancer doesn’t have a simple fix. A singular pill does not exist that one can take to make all the side effects go away. The pain and anxiety induced with my sister’s cancer is something I obviously wish never existed. It was difficult and nearly impossible sometimes for a host of reasons.
I would do anything to help her feel better. More often than not, that meant while at home, I would dose numerous medications. Zofran, phenergan, reglan, compazine on a rotating cycle to combat that ever-present nausea. Benadryl and ativan to calm her fears and help her get some sleep at the end of extraordinarily long days. Fentanyl, morphine, oxycontin or oxycodone for the endless pain she endured. That was on top of the already schedule regimen of pills that she took three times a day.
All of those medications were prescribed to her, and all were always dosed in accordance to how they were written. But in a constant cycle of dosing her medications and living with cancer, she became dependent on them to live. In the moment, I, nor anybody else, ever gave it a second thought. Her team and I were trying to help her get through cancer. And in so many ways, medication is the most valuable – if not the only – way to do that.
Looking back, we were stuck in a balancing act somewhere between trying to give her as normal a life as possible while coping with the new normal that was now a fact of life because she had stage 4 cancer.
In order to function, she took as many as 33 pills daily. She has been on so many medications in the past three years that it takes many forms upon hospital admission to list them all. She continues to be on many of them now as she is only 18 months post-transplant. Like most cancer patients, she has taken other medications to counteract the side effects caused by other medications.
During the course of her illness, she was detoxed of all of her medications numerous times. This occurred because her doctors worried about drug interactions or that one of her unexplainable side effects could’ve been caused by minor overdoses. After she had a seizure, we learned that her salvage chemo had been the cause. Her body was not able to sustain nearly anything because of the vulnerable state that she was in.
While that magic pill doesn’t exist for cancer, we sure do dose a lot of them, anyway. Through many treatments, patients endure innumerable side effects. Palliating patients during cancer is obviously important, as is remembering that the patient’s body and mind may never be the same. To continually medicate often masked not only the physical pain, but also the psychological consequences that came with cancer.
While her journey was far more complex than many, cancer comes with a cost no matter what. For my sister, she resisted everything. So much help was offered, and she always refused. No psychologist was ever able to actively treat my sister on a continual basis, and the repercussion has been a long year in remission with many mental health issues for her. It is not that people did not try, it is that my sister was not wanting to accept all that had unfolded during cancer.
The long road to recovery began for my sister on Jan. 14, 2016, when she received her bone marrow transplant. But for that recovery to fully occur, or for it to progress further than it has, requires her full participation. That is not to say that it is her fault that things played out as they did during her cancer journey. But while none of that was in her control, so much of what is happening now is.
She is a different person now. And as much as she has had to rediscover who she is physically, she also has to do that mentally. The medications that were dosed have changed her nearly as much as cancer did. She is sadly still quite dependent on numerous medications that she took while ill with cancer.
Chief amongst them are the narcotics and opiates that she took for the pain she endured. From 128 tumors and metastasis, her pain tolerance has obviously changed. A process needs to occur where she can learn what she needs versus what she takes, because in three years, it has become a habit for her and way of her to get through the day and to cope. By no means am I advocating against medications. Much to the contrary, I am suggesting that patients and doctors communicate ones needs more closely, especially as the journey of cancer transitions into the phase of recovering post-cancer.
Just as much as the body needs to heal from cancer, so does the mind. While my sister has not started the process to do that, I am hoping that will come soon.