Chemotherapy Makes Us Old Before Our Time

Kathy LaTour

Well after blaming chemotherapy for everything from not cleaning your own house (because I’ve been throwing up for 24 hours) to forgetting your mother-in-law’s birthday (my memory isn’t what it was before chemotherapy), now we can blame chemotherapy for the young man at the movie theater asking if you are your child’s grandparent instead of parent. Yikes! Do I look that old?

Those of us who had chemotherapy and/or radiation as part of our treatment have now been hit with another lovely late effect, if the results of a new study are accurate. We have the potential to age prematurely. 

The study addressing this comes from UCLA and, in a nutshell, says that women who had breast cancer and were treated with chemotherapy or radiation had high levels of DNA damage and reduced activity of a certain enzyme that is involved in chromosome healing, compared to women who only had surgery. These changes can result in accelerated aging.

Not great news, but in the next line, they did insert the word “some” in front of the word women when addressing our vulnerability to biological changes associated with accelerated aging. So, this is only for some women and not for others.

The process of aging, of course, is impacted in numerous ways, and when I read this study, I preferred to think of the positives that I associate with aging such as the wisdom that comes with grey hair not just the accelerated aging at the biological level.

I don’t know about other survivors, but the understanding of the world and what is important and what isn’t was probably the primary lesson I learned from breast cancer. And I know few women who went through the experience who didn’t grow in understanding of themselves and the world around them. These are traits we assign to older women who have lived into their 70s and 80s.

But I defy anyone to say facing our own mortality isn’t comparable to a few decades of life.

While the study didn’t tell us how much we age due to chemo or radiation, I choose to believe that my greater understanding of life and its challenges came from my cancer journey, which began at age 37 and continues today, 31 years later.

OK I may have a few more wrinkles I can blame on chemo, but that is fine, because when all is said and done, I am still here to continue adding up the late effects of cancer.
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