“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
A few days ago, I was hurrying across the room to open the door for a workman who was coming to fix holes in our walls resulting from a plumbing emergency.
In our haste to make space for the workman, we emptied the contents of a closet (where one of the holes was) into the middle of the room that I was crossing, and as I scurried, one of those wayward closet inhabitants tripped me. I crashed onto the floor, twisting the joint of my left big toe and falling onto my right arm.
I tried icing, but I could easily ice only one body part at a time as I tried to work at my computer, and since I needed to be able to walk, the foot got preferential treatment. As a result, while the bruise on my foot looked terrible, I could put pressure on it and as long as I limped, was able to get around.
My arm was another matter. For the remainder of the day, I was wondering whether I had fractured anything. Rotating my wrist was excruciating, bending my elbow any amount was painful and even just having the arm hang down hurt like crazy. I couldn’t grasp things with my right fingers. The only non-painful position was if I supported my right hand with my left.
Why am I telling you this?
Because I’d written some time back about how I found it difficult to find gratitude for “little things” because doing so felt forced.
Well, that morning, I ate those words.
Because when I think back now of how wonderful it was to be able to open a jar of pickles by myself, or even raise a fork to my mouth, I get hit between the eyes with the concept of finding gratitude for everything.
I found gratitude for the fact that I fell on the carpeted floor and not onto one of my son’s tools (that he had left lying around — I need to talk with that boy), that I am still allowed to work remotely and can do so from the comfort of my bedroom, that we have a car with automatic transmission (no shifting!), and that we had enough bags of frozen veggies that I could easily rotate through as they thawed and keep icing.
The next morning, I experienced a tsunami of gratitude for feeling better, getting more mobility and being able to avoid a visit to urgent care. That one trip knocked some sense into me and reminded me that it is not nearly as difficult to fill my cup with joy for things I’ve been regularly taking for granted.
So, that trip I took helped me discover that I don’t need to wait for gloriously grand things to occur in order to feel gratitude. Multiple reasons for a grateful attitude are all around me, every day.
Warning: This is going to be a bit of a gripe-fest…
This coming week marks my one-year anniversary of taking letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor designed to reduce the risk of recurrence of my breast cancer by reducing the levels of estradiol (precurser to estrogen) in the body.
Aromatase inhibitors are problematic. Significant numbers of women discontinue taking these medications prior to the planned end of treatment, and this is due mainly to side effects (Kadakia et al., 2016, The Oncologist).
A year into this, I can completely relate. When I was on tamoxifen, the side effects were less well-defined. With letrozole, they’re unmistakable.
Most infuriating are the physical ones, especially the arthralgia (joint pain). I’m an ardent exerciser, regularly engaging in rowing, lifting weights and interval training. Arthralgia puts obvious limitations on my workouts. Maintaining muscle is harder and as a result I need to work out more intensely. So I push it, but it feels like I’m treading water with an anvil tied around my neck. I know that working out and building muscle is going to be tough at age 54, but I question the benefits of a drug purported to lessen the chance of cancer recurrence when it’s affecting my ability to engage in something (exercise) which is strongly associated with a decreased risk of cancer (Cannioto et al., 2020, JCNI). It doesn’t seem to make sense.
Another effect of the drop in estrogen is fatigue, which can be intense by the end of the day. Then, okay, I go to bed early, but my sleep quality is hit-or-miss. Sometimes I experience weird “restless leg” symptoms. This is a “gripping” or aching sensation that can only be aleviated by moving my legs. Any position that feels comfortable at the moment soon won’t, and I do an awkward dance as I move around in bed. Not a great recipe for falling asleep. Luckily this doesn’t occur every night, but when it does, it impacts the next workday.
As a side note, I usually take magnesium supplements before bed, not only to aid in muscle recovery, but also to help with sleep. I don’t know what my nights would be like if I didn’t take them regularly, and I’m not willing to find out.
Over time, the pain in my joints and limbs has increased. It’s most pronounced in my fingers, toes, ankles, hips and elbows, and I’m generally most achey as I’m going to sleep and when I wake in the morning. Sometimes it’s bad enough that it wakes me at night–usually a burning sensation in my fingers and toes–but that happens only occasionally.
By the way, in case you’re wondering if that’s bone metastases instead of side effects, trust me, I’ve already thought about that. I’ve also done the obligatory googling, and while I’ll let my oncologist know about the pain at my next appointment, I don’t think it’s metastasis. These symptoms are just your garden-variety letrozole side effects.
One of the most striking physical side effects (that I could actually show to other people!) didn’t kick in until about Month 8 of taking the letrozole, when the stiffness in my fingers escalated to the point where several of them would lock up in the morning. If I made a fist and then attempted to open my hand, a few of my fingers would “stick” and, as I continued to try to straighten them, they’d suddenly sproing open.
I’ve already mentioned the physical fatigue, but there’s a deeper, darker side to this, which I’ve written about previously. The rest of my family — husband and two teenagers — are up and lively in the evening as I’m dragging my sorry butt to bed. I feel a strong disconnect from them. More specifically, I feel old, which is not surprising, since decreased estrogen is associated with ageing. I feel like I don’t belong with my family anymore, like there’s a distance between us. So, I’m taking a medication to help prevent a possible recurrence of my breast cancer, but the price I’m paying for that reduced risk seems pretty steep.
Adding to that feeling of disconnect is the sudden drop in my libido. Perhaps this would have been easier to take if I were single, or divorced (which is the direction it sometimes feels this is heading). I’ve already written about the issue here so I won’t rehash all my frustration. Suffice it to say that while sexual side effects are mentioned in the scientific literature and in doctors’ offices, they’re not really talked about from the standpoint of the effect they have on relationships. This is one of those intangible issues that is difficult to quantify and even more difficult to discuss.
There are also cognitive problems that involve (1) concentration, (2) focus and (3) memory. Listen, I need all three of those for work. I cannot express how crippling it feels trying to learn new convoluted financial software when my brain simply refuses to cooperate. Truly, taking a mindfulness break helps immensely, but it simply doesn’t solve the problem. It just keeps me from putting my fist through my monitor.
Ah, yes, irritability. Put that down as another side effect.
So I’m a year into letrozole and I’m searching through the scientific literature to see what, truly, are the rates of recurrence for women who discontinue the medication prematurely, and what other factors come into play in terms of reducing risks.
My goal is to get through at least five years of combined endocrine therapy (tamoxifen and letrozole), and I’m already more than halfway there, having finished two years of tamoxifen before I got on the aromatase inhibitor train. I mean, only two more years of this.
Maybe I’ve hit the high mark of side effects and they won’t get any worse? Maybe?
Note: the side effects I’ve mentioned are not the only ones that occur with aromatase inhibitors. These are simply the big ones for me. Before you start any treatment, make sure you discuss with your oncologist what sort of adverse reactions you can expect and what you can do to mitigate them.
WARNING: IF YOU ARE STARTING ON AN AROMATASE INHIBITOR, I highly recommend that you not read this and instead give yourself the chance to gauge the medication’s effects without being influenced by someone else’s experiences. Note that I started letrozole just out of menopause, so my side effects from this drug have been more dramatic than they might be for a women who’s been postmenopausal for longer.
When it was time to start letrozole, I took a different tack than when I began tamoxifen. For the latter drug, I did all the research I could, researching relevant studies, digging into possible side effects and visiting lots of forums to learn about what other women were experiencing.
I wish I hadn’t. I think all the negatives affected my perception and made me anxious about taking the medication.
So after two years of tamoxifen, when my hormone levels suggested that I was postmenopausal and it was time to switch to an aromatase inhibitor, I stayed away from clinical literature about letrozole. I decided to give it a chance, since my oncologist felt that I had confused the effects of anxiety about taking tamoxifen with the actual effects of tamoxifen.
Okay, then. As I was leaving my oncologist’s office, letrozole prescription in hand, he added that some women complain of “joint pain”. I think he felt it was his duty to warn me.
My experience? I’m finding it harder to recover from workouts. I train with free weights and am a rower (currently, indoor) and the change in my resilience and stamina is striking. In 2018, a year after finishing up chemo, I was able to power through tough workouts and felt like I’d gotten most of my pre-cancer strength back.
Fast-forward to now, just two years later, I feel old. My joints are creakier and I’m having increased muscle pain and overall stiffness. I’m experiencing bone pain in the leg that I broke skateboarding when I was 12. Yeah, I push through workouts, but they’re taking their toll on me.
I’m fortunate to have a full complement of gym equipment at home, so the COVID-19 lockdown didn’t hinder my workouts. To get some fresh air, I incorporated more hiking into my routine, in addition to my regular workouts.
It was too much and left me with hip pain that made it difficult to fall asleep. So I took a rare break from vigorous workouts and for two weeks incorporated more gentle movements and focused on yoga, which I had been doing intermittently.
When I started ramping back up, I didn’t feel rested, I felt weak! Weights that had been easy to lift a couple of weeks before felt challenging. I had to restart the process of building my strength. You could pass it off as simply “age”, but I’m only 54, and the drop in strength and energy has felt precipitous, even demoralizing. While it’s true that I went through menopause during the last two years, it was a medication-induced menopause and I was literally shoved through the change.
Letrozole has been shown to be very effective in preventing cancer recurrence, presumably because it works to keep estrogen levels low. However, most women on letrozole are in their 60s and have been postmenopausal for a number of years. For a woman in her 50s, the aging effect of estrogen suppression has felt dramatic.
My libido dipped even lower than I’d experienced with tamoxifen, something I was warned about by my GP and gynocologist (both females). My male oncologist didn’t talk about it. I believe this is a seriously underreported side effect of aromatase inhibitors and one that many women suffer from in silence, because they don’t feel comfortable bringing it up.
Likewise, I feel my appearance changed. Now, this may simply be my perception of myself, as my post-chemo hair transitioned from super-cool and spikey to thin and limp (and, now, untrimmed!), and my eyebrows never recovered. But it’s not just in my head: A bus driver recently tried to offer me a senior citizen discount, whereas four years ago someone had told me they thought I was in my late 30s! That’s a big difference. The fact that the lack of estrogen is making me look like I’m older than I really am has become distressing:
And that difference is felt in my relationship with my family. There have been times that I’ve looked at my husband (four years my junior) and my high school-aged kids, and I feel like don’t belong with them. I feel like a stranger, an old lady that’s just hanging around. That hurts a lot.
And on my worst days, I feel dark clouds rolling in, bringing with them frustration and hopelessness. Is it letrozole or menopause? Does it even matter? Take a woman, throw her in a bag, tie it to a tree branch and then beat it with a stick. That is how I feel when I have to take a pill that does these things to me. No control, no future, lots of pain. The longer that I continue with medications like this, the more I feel that they are pointless, since I’m starting to not care whether or not the cancer comes back. And that’s the worst side effect of all.
So, this blog is about being honest about the cancer experience. But it’s also about mindfulness. I have to open the door and let the negative feelings into the room so that I can offer them compassion and a kind ear. I sit with them for a while, and eventually, I feel better.
It won’t come as a shock that I’m so grateful to have cancer treatments behind me. While it’s true that the ‘me’ in the mirror still looks so different from the person I used to be, memories of cancer slowly fade into the background as concerns about current life take precedence. The more time that passes, the more likely I am to think that treatment wasn’t that bad. Hey, maybe parts of it were pretty good?
Nothing shocks me back to the frigid reality of cancer like an unexpected flash of pain in my breast. I don’t mean those post-surgery “zingers” that I was warned about. Those I’ve gotten used to and consider familiar. The ones I’m talking about feel different. I stop breathing for a second, trying to define the sensation.
I feel stupid forgetting how nasty a beast cancer is. These pains throw me into high alert. It’s an unpleasant sensation, because it transports me back to an uncontrollably dark point in my life. I’m so mindful and present in the “now” that it’s almost too intense.
Then the pain stops. Um, okaaaaay?
These are sensations that someone who’s never gone through cancer would consider to be weird annoyances. But to a former patient, they mean something else. I’m primed to worry about anything new, no matter where it is.
Twice so far, I’ve experienced a sudden weakness in my arms. Both times it was in the morning not long after rising. My arms felt heavy and uncomfortable. This is not normal. It’s worst for about a minute and then gradually disappears, but my focus on it is so sharp that I’m not sure if it’s really gone even after a half hour, most of which I’ve spent googling “sudden temporary weakness in both arms” and getting unsatisfying results.
Incidentally, not a single one of those search results mentions cancer.
That echoes what my oncologist said: “You know, it doesn’t have to be cancer.” Yeah, I know, but in my mind the Big “C” still seems like the scariest bully on the block. I shudder at the thought of another round of treatment.
Clearly, things have gotten weird when you read that your symptoms might be due to ischemic stroke — and breathe a sigh of relief.
I am just coming off a bout of particularly intense anxiety, so this is a good time to write an addendum to my last post. This episode of anxiety was striking in its intensity, hit me much harder than I expected and took a lot more out of me. The trigger was something that happened to someone I love, so I had no control over it but felt all the emotional pain.
It’s now been almost a week. Intellectually I’m over it but its physical effects linger and threaten to pull me back in. This is a change from the past because I used to be able to shake these feelings more easily. Now anxiety casts a long shadow that remains after the worst has passed. I get flashes of the stressful event and I re-experience that despair.
As it did with my cancer diagnosis, my weight plummeted over the past week. The reason: my reaction to anxiety is in the gut and intestines. A cold, tight, miserable feeling — emotional pain made physical. As days go by and things seem to fall back into place, meditation grounds me and staying mindful keeps me focused on the “now” and not ruminating on what has happened. But while I can calm myself, the physical effects of the nausea hold on.
That nausea, then, serves as a reminder of the event and re-triggers the anxiety. In times of distress I fear eating because the nausea is even worse with food in my stomach. But not eating weakens me and increases the sense of agony. This transitions into a depression of sorts. Quite simply, at this point I can’t win.
What causes even more anxiety is the link between stress and inflammation, and thereby inflammation and cancer. While I’ve been assured that it’s not the case, there’s a part of me that still implicates stress in the proliferation of my cancer.
As my weight drops I am reminded of that same fear I felt after my diagnosis, that the drop in weight would worsen my outcome because I still had to go through chemo and its effects. So all that fear is concentrated and deep in meaning. One event triggers multiple memories.
This seems like an impossible situation. Anxiety brings worries of cancer, which cause more anxiety. I’m afraid of being afraid. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?
The cycle runs its course as time passes. The intensity fades. Slowly I regain my emotional footing, but I’m still attached to the expectations I had before the event that triggered this anxiety. Those expectations will eventually transition into a new reality, but until I am truly able to practice non-attachment, I am destined to repeat this.
One of the reasons this blog is currently anonymous is that there are topics I want to cover without the fear of being judged. As many strides as have been made in dealing with mental health issues, there still remains a stigma associated with things going on in your headspace.
If there’s one thing that cancer did, for better or for worse, is force me to face the fact that I have a problem with anxiety. I’ve often wondered how different my cancer experience would have been, had I been able to go through all of this without the uncontrollable fear. I expect that I would have been less angry, less nauseated, less desperate. I’m sure that other people experience anxiety with their diagnosis too; mine devoured me.
This deserves a description: if asked to describe myself as a dog breed, I would like to say that I’m a Great Dane or a Mastiff (hopefully less drooly), watching the world coolly, not getting too excited about anything. But that’s not who I am. I’m a Chihuahua — but not a nasty, bitey, snarly guy with a Napoleon complex. I’m one of those pathetic little dogs that just sits there and trembles with a paw raised. I get anxious, and how. But in the past, the bouts of anxiety always passed rather quickly, perhaps in a matter of hours or, at worst, a day or two. My mind would work through it, and that would ease the tension. That’s why I’ve always been able to handle it.
But going through cancer blew that to pieces. When I experience anxiety now, it hits me like a freight train. The effects are immediate: a cold punch to my gut followed by nausea and weakness. When I focus on being mindful and present, I can slow my breathing and heartrate but I cannot get rid of the nausea, so I can’t shed the overall feeling.
This sensation is horrible. Meditation works wonders, but I cannot yet make enough space for my anxiety to be able to step back and observe it. It’s in my face, and that’s terrifying, but not necessarily apparent to those around me. It’s a dirty little secret that has affected my quality of life.
That can be harder to deal with than cancer. And I can’t believe that I let myself write that. But apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. Dr. Stephen Ilardi, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas with a private practice in Clinical Psychology, teaches a Calm Master Class called “Rethinking Depression” (Calm.com) in which he describes the experience of a former cancer patient who battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While undergoing particularly difficult cancer treatment, the patient was visibly ill and suffering but received an enormous amount of support from those around him, and that helped him through the disease.
Several years after he recovered from his cancer, the young man experienced a bout of serious clinical depression, but he didn’t “look sick” the way he had from the lymphoma. As a result few people around him understood the level of psychological pain he endured, and he received little support.
After his depression finally lifted, the patient declared that if he had to chose between once again going through the cancer or experiencing depression, he would take the cancer even though its treatment was pure physical torment.
That speaks volumes regarding not only the agony of psychological distress but also how critically important it is to take it seriously. Mental health issues deserve more attention, and even though we’ve come a long way in understanding their impact, we need to do better. In the context of cancer, I feel it’s imperative to address the psychological repercussions of the disease, in addition to the life-threatening physical ones.
Which is why I’m writing. I can’t help but think how much worse this would be if I wasn’t actively engaged in coping techniques.