A two-time cancer survivor shares her experiences with cancer's side effects.
As a breast cancer and melanoma survivor, my treatments included surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and then five years of an oral hormone suppressant pill. I learned to cope with the side effects from each of these treatments. Coping with side effects was and is a learning process.
As each person can react to treatments a little differently, I learned to pay better attention to my body and to communicate what I was experiencing to my doctors. For instance, I experienced severe back pain as a reaction to a shot that was supposed to improve my white blood count after chemotherapy, and surprisingly to me, the doctor had me use over-the-counter Diphenhydramine, which provided simple relief from very severe pain.
When coping with fatigue, I learned many lessons. I learned to accept help. I learned to be gentle with myself, something a friend had been suggesting to me for years. Being gentle with myself included being gentle physically, like when I was tired and couldn’t get more done in a day. Surprisingly, it also included being gentle with my own emotions! Cancer is a big deal, and I learned to go ahead and cry when I needed to cry and to mentally give myself hugs and reassurances when I needed them. I also learned it truly was OK to slow down.
Hair loss due to chemotherapy and cancer in general cause me a lot of emotional distress—which was sort of funny because I never really liked my hair much! I discovered I looked good in baseball hats. On a more serious note, I learned not to do cancer alone. I joined a breast cancer support group and I went to a psychotherapist who specialized in oncology patients. Both of these provided much needed support through challenging times. Unfortunately, cancer is a marathon and not a sprint. Personally, I am better at sprints but cancer never asked me.
Because cancer treatments and the effects of cancer can stretch out over weeks, months and even longer, I needed to add some coping tools to my emotional toolbox. These tools include journaling about my cancer thoughts, guided imagery, meditation, connecting with my spiritual side and connecting with nature, even when that was sometimes just looking out the window for ten minutes to slow my “worry brain” down a bit.
Unfortunately, cancer side effects and cancer worries don’t necessarily go away at the end of active treatment. I continue to be vigilant and to connect with fellow survivors and develop the tools in my toolbox as I move forward into the years that follow active treatments.
Cancer and cancer treatment can be a daunting process. Slow down. Take a breath. Go one step at a time. Try not to let the worry brain capture you and make you look too far down the road. You are not alone and you can get through this! Sending virtual hugs and prayers to you.
Six-year breast cancer and three-year melanoma survivor As an over-achieving perfectionist who wanted to help fellow cancer survivors, I am the author of “Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools—We’ll Get You Through This” (Ayni Books, 2015). This book is a combination of all my research, cancer support experiences, and personal journaling through my cancers. I figure if my book helps even one other person who hears the words, “You have cancer,” it will have been worth it (and it has been!)