The Elephant in the Room: Cancer Treatment Made Me Clumsier

August 21, 2020

For a long time, I refused to acknowledge the lingering effects of neuropathy. I found a way to joke about it and told everybody I was clumsy. To acknowledge the elephant in the room, I had to admit I needed to explore balance further.

Of the many things I have written about as a cancer survivor, the one thing I have not written about is my elephant in the room: The lingering effects chemo has had on my gait.

Since I have wanted to be as good as new, I have not desired to admit that I am clumsier now. And, giving away a favorite pair of shoes was not enough to cure me.

When I first started chemo, I found some fuzzy mules on sale. I felt cozy wearing them into the infusion room where I could kick them off as I curled into my chair, and then slip them back on as I left. As with my chemo tote and thermos of hot tea, they were part of my survival care package.

Usually after a major infusion, I would head back home and rest. Once, however, I went to the grocery store with my son who was driving me around that day. “Look,” I said, as I begin to push the buggy. “I can't walk straight.” I was intrigued. My son was more concerned. At that point, I realized the fuzzy mules might not be up to the task. I still wore them until I had to stop.

That is because the mules had, in addition to a cute facade, a small wedge heel of no more than an inch and a half. As chemo went on, that wedge heel became a barometer for me. My footing began to feel less secure as I dealt with neuropathy. Soon, I knew I had to give up the mules. I just could not walk in them safely. I have never worn high heels, and I have always gravitated toward practical shoes, so not being able to wear even a modest heel was not an imposition. It was more of a sign my body was changing.

Neuropathy is not uncommon with certain types of chemo drugs and was, in fact, a side effect of two of my drugs. (I advise you to research them or talk to your doctor to learn more about side effects of the drugs you took.) I found it unnerving but figured it would pass.

Even wearing flat shoes after I finished treatment, though, felt different. My gait changed and it is still not the same. That is OK except for the fact that sometimes I stumble more than I should. In addition to bruises (and a bruised ego), I have experienced a few unnecessary falls and fractures of varying degrees.

For a long time, I refused to acknowledge the lingering effects of neuropathy. I found a way to joke about it and told everybody I was clumsy. To acknowledge the elephant in the room, I had to admit I needed to explore balance further. Sometimes just wearing a different pair of shoes is not quite enough to keep us on our toes.

There are multiple considerations a doctor or physical therapist can walk you through if you need help. If a gait changes, for example, you can make more adjustments than I did early on. Exercises and treatments help us to navigate neuropathy, which may manifest in different ways.

Online resources, including information from the Dana Farber Cancer Center, are worth exploring. “Risk Factors for Falls in Adult Cancer Survivors: An Integrative Review” helped me. In their report, Grace Campbell, Rachel A. Wolfe and Mary Lou Klem summarize findings related to cancer patients and survivors. This observation makes me feel less alone: “Cancer survivors’ risk for falls is higher than that of community-dwelling older adults.” Admitting we may be at higher risk is the first step in staying on our feet.


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