Friday, October 7, 2011

Lesser Known Chemo Side Effects

I should warn you that this isn't a faint of heart blog post. As Eric said slightly awkwardly after reading my last blog post, I'm nothing if not honest. (exact quote "You're more honest than me"). So if somehow my grandmother has figured out how to read my blog, you've been warned Grams.

Eric and I went to the classy establishment that is McSwiggins for trivia night. (We lost, by one point. I'm horrid at trivia). Don't worry mom - I drank ginger ale the whole time. I got a nose bleed at the bar. Embarrassing. No, I didn't pick my nose; it's a chemo side effect. Because Eric didn't know it was a side effect, I figured I'd cover what side effects are common with chemo. I shouldn't just blow up Eric's spot. A lot of people don't know. There was one Darden classmate that I sat next to who clearly disgusted ask why I got nose bleeds. Sorry dude. Not my fault.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, chemo is a low grade poison. As such, it kills immature cells. Cells are immature after they divide. Ergo, rapidly dividing cells (including cancer cells) are killed off by chemo. There are a lot of rapidly dividing cells in your body apparently. Time for a bulleted list because it's late and my back hurts! Rapidly dividing cells and side effects of chemo can include:

  • The lining of my nose -  Chemo causes nose bleeds when the lining gets thin. The other thing that happens is in the cold air, my nose can burn. 
  • Skins cells - Side effect: skin irritation, itching, and dryness
  • Hair follicles - Hair falls out or in my case thins enough for Eric to point out a bald spot on my head. This also includes all hair on your body - leg hair, arm pit hair, eye brows and eye lashes. Just ask my mom. She has none of these.
  • Mouth/Gum cells - mouth sores and gum bleeding can result from chemo. You're also more prone to cavities.
  • Stomach cells - nausea and vomiting result.
  • Intestines  - yep some chemos seriously mess with your digestive track, especially those of us without colons. Constipation and/or diarrhea. 
Super fun times.

There are other side effects that are I could tie back to my immature cell list. Weight loss used to be pretty common with chemo. I learned that almost half of chemo patients actually gain weight on chemo - due in large part to either better nausea drugs or patients being put on steroids.

Educational sidebar! If I was writing a chemo text book. This would be in one of those call out boxes. There's probably a way to do it in a blog, but way beyond on my blogging capability. Chemo is heavily regulated because it's so toxic. It's given based on formulas for my weight and height. I get weighed very often by the doctor. I can usually estimate my weight within a half a pound margin. I've made guessing my weight a game. So far on chemo I've lost 8 pounds. I've only done 3 treatments. It's a little concerning, but at least I'll be able to hit my wedding goal weight without dieting! (I was talking to a friend about my weight loss, she said candidly "am I suppose to say that's awesome or not awesome?" Laughing, I answered "Both." Glad she gets me.) End Sidebar.

Fatigue is another very common symptom for chemo. I don't have as much energy as I used to. My mom, who's one of the busiest people I know, expressed concern to her oncologist once about her fatigue. The doctor said "Oh well, it's no surprise that you're fatigued" My mom responded with "it's a surprise to me!" Awesomely related, one of the best gifts I've gotten so far was a pajamagram! It was a pair of pajama fatigue pants and a shirt that says "Fatigued". Hilarious and it's so comfy. I wear them more than I should. Fatigue though is a really annoying side effect. It's frustrating to not have the energy that I want to have to do all the things that I'd like to do.

I've heard that some chemos, like those for breast cancers, can seriously throw your hormones out of whack and all the associated PMS/menopausal side effects. Luckily, my treatments don't have a big impact there. Although my family would probably argue I'm still an overly emotional child sometimes... they'd be right.

By far the craziest and most unexpected side effect was a cold sensitivity. Thankfully, I'm not on the chemo that causes this for this whole chemo treatment. However, last time it was a problem. Anytime I was in an enviornment that was below 80 degrees my fingers and toes would go painfully numb - and in the winter not uncommon. Pins and needles to the extreme. If I breathed in air that was cold, I could feel my throat closing up. It also meant I couldn't drink anything cold. So for the week of chemo, I was relegated to warm drinks. If you don't like coffee or tea like me, it was a problem. Also, if you don't have a colon like me and were suppose to drink 2 liters of fluid a day like I was, it was also a problem. I drank a bunch of room temperature water, milk, or milk based protein shakes. I used to have to seriously stress "no ice" when I ordered at restaurants - then wait a bit for my drink to warm up.

I used to wear arm warmers to help with the numbness. Eric met me at Darden Bowling, where I would go as an observer with my arm warmers. Needless to say, he thought I was weird. I am, but at least I don't wear arm warmers as frequently now. I still not so secretly love them. Call me a child of the 80's.

What else am I forgetting? I'm sure there's more...

Chemo also can seriously decrease your white blood cell count. They have medication to help. For those of you not raised by a nurse, white blood cells are your immune system. Chemo patients are more susceptible to disease and infection. So far my white blood cell count is...ok. It's something they monitor closely with blood draws every week. If it gets too low, they doctors not allowed to give you chemo. (The only thing more frustrating than getting chemo is not getting chemo. You worry and feel like the cancer may be growing). There's medication that they give for improving white blood cells. Chemo patients are suppose to get mani/pedis because of the risk of infection. I've also been told we shouldn't visit the dentist to get our teeth cleaned - remember you're prone to cavities though and gum bleeding. Nice juxtaposition.

One of my chemos for bone cancer breaks down bones. They give me a medication to improve my bones. Side effect: bone swelling. It's as painful as it sounds. I do have good pain meds though. I'm positive street value of what I have is more than my annual salary. If someone ever steals my purse, they're going to be really happy. Not because I have any money (another side effect of cancer is a draining of the bank account...), but because there's a lot of drugs in there. It makes me slightly nervous walking around New York City.

Insomnia can be a side effect. My mom and I both have this on our off chemo weeks. It's annoying too. At least today, it's giving me the motivation to update yall. Depression is another result of cancer/chemo. I don't know if it's directly related to emotional or physical. It's probably both.

The last weird side effect that I can't prove - yet - is I think I can feel the cancer cells dying. My mom concurs. We could both feel pain where the CT Scans show we have the most cancer. For her, it resulted in what felt like abdomen pain. For me, it's left elbow, left wrist, and right hip pain - which is where some of the larger bone cancer cells are (were). It's not constant and subsides. It would be easy to be frustrated at this pain, but it's nice to tell ourselves that it's the cancer dying. I really honestly believe that is. Call my crazy. Just don't call me before 8am.

Ok so that's my knowledge of chemo and side effects. I will say that for as long as that list is, I feel pretty good very often. Most side effects are treatable with medications. CVS Pharmacy is programed into my phone - and they call me more than I call them. Side effects are the worst during the week of chemo and then subside as the week progresses. Usually on my off week I'm feeling good enough to work and do most of the things I want to do. Nausea is my biggest problem on chemo weeks. By non-chemo week, fatigue is usually my biggest problem. I'm luckily that I'm young and otherwise healthy. It does help with recovery. I'm really not unhappy either. Sure I have bad days, but I'm surrounded by so much love and happy, wonderful people that it's really hard to be unhappy with my life. It could be a lot worse and I could have a lot more complications - both medically, financially, occupationally, etc. I'm really a lucky girl.

And since I think I add thank you's at the bottom of all my blog posts I should dedicate one to amazing fiancee Eric. He's a wonderful person. He's never made me feel bad about being sick. Almost never complains about it. Listens to me be super neurotic - both about cancer and wedding planning. He's my rock in this storm and my best friend. How well he's taking all of this has been by far the most shocking part of being sick... well after the initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer again. I couldn't do this without him. He sends me presents, which I love. He walks slower when I can't keep up. I try to avoid letting it impact what we do, especially when I'm in New York, but it does. When I cry about it, he's comforting. When I'm in pain, he gently rubs my back as I lay in a lump on the bed (honestly one of the most comforting things). Cancer can strain a lot of relationships and make them worse. It's made ours better. He's a good man for stepping up to the challenge. I could spend pages describing how amazing he is. Sufficient to say, I'm so happy to be marrying him so I can spend the rest of my life repaying him.

Also sufficient to say he's annoyed reading about me gushing about him. For all his friends that read this, he's still drinks bourbon on the rock and makes fun of me too.


  1. Holy long post Batman! :) I love it! OK well I don't love all the yucky side effects of chemo... but I love knowing what's going on with you, and your mom.

    Thank you Eric for taking good care of our Patti!


  2. continuing healing prayers for you and your family. Eric, great loving support...proud of ya'.