There are plenty of side effects that come about from treatments for cancer, whether it be from surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Some are quite obvious and visible, others cannot be seen. Then of course, for the cancer patient, it becomes a matter of whether it is worth anyone’s attention.
I had and still swear by a couple of rules when it comes to dealing with side effects. If it is anything different than what the norm was, you make the call to the oncologist. The oncologist will be able to tell, and would make any decision that would require immediate action.
Like I said, there are obvious side effects that can be seen – hair loss, weight loss, lethargy, skin color. But perhaps the most concerning for patients, is just so complicated, because it cannot be seen. To complicate matters, perception, how a cancer patient worries about this side effect, can actually cause more duress trying to deny it causing cancer patients to deny it. This is not a good thing. Your doctor is going to know best whether what you are feeling is normal, expected, or needs to be looked into further. You could be having a reaction to the treatment, or perhaps it could be psychosomatic in nature. The key is to never underestimate how you are feeling. If it is an emergency, trust me, your doctor will make an immediate decision and direct you what you need to do.
Fatigue is simply put, exhaustion. Not just “phew – I put in 8 hours today, went to the gym, did some grocery shopping, and barely had enough energy to cook dinner.” No fatigue is much worse than that. Because treatments deplete the body of the many blood cells it needs to survive, cancer patients are often left with barely enough energy to get from a chair in their living room, grab a little snack in the kitchen, and sit back down without being completely exhausted.
I have often told cancer patients who have asked me about fatigue, I put it simply, “if you feel like putting a new roof on the house, go for it. But if you cannot even get up to change the channel on the television (like we used to do as far back as the early 1980’s), then don’t”. It sounded like a silly suggestion, but from the first time, that a patient tries to push their energy level, they remember the little voice I put in their head warning them if they did not listen to their body.
But you see, dealing with fatigue is complicated. If you are like me, or my late father, we were never the type to sit around, or ask for help with anything. If something needed to be done, we did what we had to, and then we paid for it dearly. But being forced into a nap is the least of the worries in dealing with fatigue. We are not only wearing ourselves out mentally, and physically, but we are challenging our bodies to keep up when it so desperately needs rest.
Radiation therapy is harmful to the body. Great in curing cancer, but harmful. Most chemotherapy is toxic to the body. Great in curing cancer, but toxic. Both treatments erode our body’s immune system, which, if we push ourselves physically more than we should, it only wears our immune system down even quicker.
So we have to deal with fatigue ourselves. But I talked about perception, from a patient’s perspective. But because fatigue can only be felt and not seen, we as cancer patients often burden ourselves with how we are seen by those around us. The most common perception we feel being directed at us is that we are lazy. Unless you are actually dealing with a situation as severe as cancer, a person is most likely never going to know what true fatigue feels like, and we have to be willing to admit, there is probably going to be some sort of judgment. We have to be willing to accept that we, WE, have to only concerns with how we treat ourselves when going through times like these. Sounds easy I know. I have been on the harassment side of co-workers who felt fatigue was bullshit.
By the second week of my radiation treatments, I was going to bed at least two hours earlier than usual, and by the end of the treatments, I was usually in bed by 7pm. During my chemotherapy, it was not unusual for me to sleep fifteen to seventeen hours after my injections, followed by early bed times. Of course the body does rebound, if you give it the chance, and then do not push it.
The fact is, fatigue is real. Just because others cannot see it, you can feel it.
Listen to your body. It will tell you what you can do, and cannot.