Finding Humor in Chemo’s Side Effects: This Too Shall Pass

From ballooning ankles to rashes, there were multiple chemotherapy side effects that I had to deal with — here’s how I did it.

Despite many despairing cancer treatment side effects, I was able to find some humor now and again. Laughter was warmly welcomed. 

Early in the induction treatment at the hospital for my acute myeloid leukemia, I saw some red pebbling on the back of my hands. The next morning, I woke to the sensation of liquid dripping behind my ears. I felt itchy, tickled and curious. I scanned myself and was shocked to see a hideous, blistering, raised red rash all over my body.

It was not pretty. With itchy oozing blisters, my bloated body from the gallons of water I drank, my crazy orangutan hair, and my sporty little hospital gown that never fit right, I was the beauty queen of the fourth floor. When sharing my despair with my sisters, we found ourselves laughing — even if it was just for a moment.

The rash covered my ballooning ankles. Most patients lose weight during induction, but I gained 20 pounds just from water.Ice water was euphoric. I craved it constantly. I made noises of thanksgiving while I drank. I could never get enough! I looked like a Hasbroweeble wobble, the egg-shaped little toy people. (I just Googled them, and they are now considered vintage!)

I peed a lot, but not enough. The medical team decided to take me off liquids for a while and raise my legs. The staff would follow behind me as I sneakily tiptoed to a bathroom down the hall to imbibe from the tap. “OH!” I’d blurt out when they caught me. Everyone would laugh at my childish behavior before I sloshed back to my room.

The hospital called in a few specialists to look at the rash. The chemotherapy cocktail was manipulated, and I got jars of creams among other things. I had more creams than you can imagine — maybe eight to 10 creams. Four were just for hemorrhoids (is the fourth cream even effective after you already applied three other creams?) No one should have this much cream. I have pictures of the creams. Who takes pictures of their creams? Alone in my bathroom, I am laughing to myself.

Side note: chemo brain is a real thing. In a fog, I sent pictures of my blistering rash as well as my fungi-like mouth sores to friends. Yeah, I did that.

People who visited me while I had this rash, as well as the viral community from the pictures, gasped. Some even cried. I spotted side glances with wide eyes and open mouths.

My Higher Power was gracious and granted me sanity. I would get to see that cute infectious disease doctor more often; he would help treat the rash and make it disappear. My ankles would become slender again. My remaining hair sprouts would eventually be shaved off and I was sure that lustrous new bouncing locks would grow in. I exuded hope with all the side effects because Itrusted that this too shall pass.

How does someone internalize “this too shall pass”? I don’t know, but here are a few things that helped me:

  • Smiling. It’s sort of like waving happily to a mean driver who just honked at you.
  • Swapping one-liners with my sisters about my makeover, or about a hysterical memory.
  • Liking my doctors. I trusted them, but they were also kind of funny.
  • Accepting the kindness of others, like the amazing nurses and their treats of bubble smoothies. (It was the thought that counts.)
  • Listening to my mom. Just her cadence is soothing.
  • Being diverted through artistic creations, even if my first attempt at water coloring was a rainbow that was partly brown.
  • Gulping glorious water.
  • Believing the “God-must-have-a plan-for-me" theory; I already survived hundreds, if not thousands, of precarious, terrifying, and often outright stupid events during my years of active addiction. I believe God will help me through cancer.
  • Accepting my humanity. I forgave myself for my moments of self-pity. I reflected on them, then called someone. My family understood.
  • Now and again, laughing at the absurd.
  • Finding time to bask in faith.

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