Balancing Side Effects vs. Quality of Life

“Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because he or she has judged that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that statement on the informational leaflets from various bottles prescribed for me. When it comes to a disease like cancer, it might as well say, “You think these side effects are bad? Hohoho, just try not taking your meds!”

This does not give warm, fuzzy feelings of hope. Then again, there’s not much about cancer that’s warm and fuzzy.

It can feel like the treatment is as bad as the disease.

I, admittedly, am generally accepting of the advice given by knowledgeable professionals. When my oncologist laid out a treatment plan, I didn’t argue, although when offered a choice between an effective targeted therapy versus an even more effective but also more toxic one, I opted for lower toxicity.

For me, it was a quality of life issue. If I’m “cured” of cancer but end up with severe heart problems…well, I’d rather take my chances with a less damaging option.

Cancer still remains life-threatening, now as it did decades ago. The difference is that patients are living longer and some go completely into remission. Survivorship should be considered a factor when designing a treatment plan, as should long-lasting repercussions of side effects.

So if I had one request of oncological health teams, it would be that they look beyond simply bombarding the cancer and consider the physical and mental condition in which they leave the patient, being sensitive to the possibility of ‘overtreatment’ in their exuberance to squash as much of the disease as possible.

Should you use a sledgehammer when a rubber mallet might be sufficient? Is “just to be sure” a justification for side effects than can compromise your quality of life, however long that is?

It’s not always easy to find that sweet spot between acceptable risk and tolerable side effects.

There is no “right” answer to this as everyone’s situation and risk tolerances are different. So if I could have a second request of the medical community, family and friends of the patient, it would be that they respect the limits and decisions of the one who’s going through this.

To be able to weigh the risks and decide what’s acceptable and where to draw the line — that might offer at least a semblance of control in the crazy roller-coaster ride that is cancer.

A Year and a 1/2 with Tamoxifen: Collateral Damage

For those unfamiliar with the drug tamoxifen, its purpose is to block estradiol receptors in an effort to decrease the chances of developing hormone receptor positive breast cancer. My own tumor had been estrogen and progesterone receptor positive, so tamoxifen is pretty much standard fare for women in my situation.

The trick is, however, to make sure women keep taking the medication, and the side effects may make that a challenge. The current recommendation for pre-menopausal women with hormone receptor positive cancer is ten years of tamoxifen. When I posted after a year of taking tamoxifen, I was experiencing minor side effects but had managed to avoid the worst hot flashes and night sweats that many women complain of. And even the side effects I had I couldn’t completely pin on the drug.

After a year and a half of tamoxifen, the landscape has changed. My estradiol level, which was 36 pg/mL when I started in November 2017, has dropped to 22 pg/mL. I’m still not having a significant problem with body temperature regulation, although this may change with the summer months.

There are, however, other distressing issues that are becoming increasingly problematic:

1. Memory lapses. I’ve written about this in a number of other posts, but it deserves mention again because it’s not getting any better. I struggle with distractability and loss of focus, which compromise my ability to do my current job. There are details that I simply miss, and I have a hard time juggling things in my head. Yes, I write everything down and follow my own advice, but there are days that I want to give up and go home.

Bottom line, even with workarounds, my concentration makes me ineffective at times. That alone could be a deciding factor in how long I will last on this medication, but it’s not the only one.

2. Fatigue. This has become more noticeable and is affecting my workouts. I feel like I’m losing ground on my fitness. While I’m no stranger to working out even when I don’t feel like it, there are days that I feel beat before I begin, and like I’ve been run over by a truck by the time I’m done. Exercise is such a crucial part of recovery and good health — and a very important part of my life — that it seems ridiculous that my treatment should be getting in the way of it!

Detachment from affection feels lonely and isolating.

3. Loss of libido and emotional attachment. This would be easier to take if I were single and living alone, but dealing with this side effect in the context of a relationship is getting progressively more difficult. It is not simply romantic desire that has dwindled; feelings of affection for my husband and children have dulled. I know I love them and feel a strong sense of responsibility for them, but there’s a numbness where there used to be warm emotions. It breaks my heart because I don’t want to feel this way.

4. Depression/mood swings. On the plus side, I know what’s going on and am actively working with my counselor on dealing with these fluctuations, but these are side effects of the drug, so as long as I’m taking it, I feel like I’m trying to bail water out of a sinking boat with a spoon.

5. Argh, again with the hair! After regrowing my hair following chemo, it has been thinning from tamoxifen. This may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but if you’ve ever lost your hair to cancer treatment, you know that it can be a emotional experience. Getting your hair back is a big deal, but thinning hair brings back a sense of helplessness and lack of control.

Notice that the effects above are not readily apparent — even the thinning hair might not be as noticeable to an observer as it is to me. It’s easier to understand visible health-related consequences, but we as a society have a hard time getting our head around (or expressing concern for) the importance and impact that emotional factors have on quality of life. You can’t see my concentration difficulties or depressive mood or grief over numbed affection, but they affect me as strongly as do any physical symptoms.

I’m not forgetting how lucky I am.

This is a good place to stop and mention gratitude. The fact that I write this post as a former cancer patient on a maintenance drug to help keep my cancer from re-occurring…that is a privilege. My good fortune is not lost on me, and it is something I think about every single day. We have come a long way in treating my type of breast cancer and I am the beneficiary of those advances.

But there is also an expectation that now that chemo and radiation are done and my scans are clean, I should be “back to normal”. I would like nothing more than that, but I’m not there.

This brings me to a deal I made with myself: I promise to do my utmost to last through five years of tamoxifen. However, years 6-10 remain to be seen. At some point, the scales will tip and quality of life will win out over whatever purported percentage of increased survivorship the full decade of the drug can offer me. This offers me some strength to push on and focus on the present, doing the best I can with what I have.

Chemo Side Effects: My First Infusion

IMPORTANT: The effects of chemotherapy vary from drug to drug and patient to patient. My side effects may be very different from what others experience. If you are about to start chemo, please consider not reading this post, as I do not want to cause you unnecessary anxiety. You have the right to enter into treatment without fear or preconceived notions that may be irrelevant to your situation! Instead, read THIS.

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This is one of those “if you wanted to know but were afraid to ask” posts. It’s not meant to scare anyone. Chemotherapy has a frightening reputation, but often what really unnerves us are the unknowns. I took a lot of notes on my treatment experience and wanted to share these in case anyone was curious. This is a much longer post than usual, so kudos to anyone who gets to the end!

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Today, April 27th, marks the two-year anniversary of my very first chemotherapy infusion for treating my triple-positive breast cancer. I was told that the first chemo was often a shock to the system and could be exceptionally hard on the body. This was true for me — sort of — because the nature of the side effects changed from one infusion to the next. My reaction to the first infusion resulted in the greatest variety of effects, a number of which didn’t significantly reoccur with subsequent infusions, even though fatigue became much worse by my sixth and final chemo session.

In addition, when I started I was not prepared to manage all the side effects effectively, whereas with later infusions, I knew better what to expect. I was most fearful of nausea as I had been warned that if I started vomiting it would be difficult to stop and might necessitate a trip to the Emergency Room. This was not a comforting thought. I was prescribed anti-nausea medications but even they had side effects, so I resisted taking them. Eventually, as mentioned in a previous post, I switched to CBD and it provided enough relief without any noticeable side effects, calming my fears. I was grateful that I lived in a state where it was freely available.

Drip, drip, drip…

My 4-hour-long chemo infusion session consisted of :
1) Herceptin
2) Benedryl & steroids
3) Taxotere
4) Carboplatin

This was in addition to steroids that I had to take starting from the day prior through the day following the infusion. That’s a LOT of medication for someone who was unaccustomed to taking drugs at all! Because of this, I can’t say my side effects were all attributable to the chemo drugs themselves, so this should be considered a run-down of the entire “chemo experience”.

4/27/2017:
This was the day of my first chemo infusion at my cancer center, following check-in and bloodwork. I received my I.V. seated by the nurses’ station so they could watch for adverse reactions, but I tolerated the infusion well. There were no acute side effects except sleeplessness from the steroids. I was off to a promising start!

4/28/2017:
I returned to the cancer center for a Neulasta injection (stimulated white blood cell production, which took a hit from chemo) and took Claritin (anti-histamine) prophylactically as it helped with potential bone pain from the Neulasta. No nausea, but I noticed that my stomach felt better if I ate more frequently. Finished up my last steroids but they were still affecting my sleep.

By that evening, things were looking surreal, like I wasn’t completely here.

BEWARE! Great food…but not a couple of days after chemo.

4/29/2017:
My stomach started feeling funny, particularly towards the end of the day. I still wasn’t sleeping well, and I had difficulty standing in place. And that afternoon I made what ranks as one of the biggest mistakes of my life: for dinner, I ate an entire package of Palak Paneer (Trader Joe’s). It was Indian food made with spinach, paneer cheese and spices. I was hungry, yes, but it was a foolish move. I would pay for it.

Shortly after dinner, I was overtaken by a wooziness and began regretting my dinner choice. After some fearful indecision, I took an anti-nausea pill (ondansetron) and propped my head up in bed.

4/30/2017:
Things started to get serious. My energy levels were dropping, and by the evening my stomach was on fire. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Putting my head down made me feel sick so I tried to sleep sitting up in bed.

That night was horrible. I took two different anti-nausea medications (four hours apart), but confused their order, so the pill I took first, I should have taken second (prochlorperazine, an anti-psychotic (!) drug with anti-nausea properties). Ho ho ho. Yeah, don’t do that. My dreams were colorless with a gritty texture, like someone had smeared coffee grounds on them. My nausea didn’t improve and I paced back and forth in the living room until enough time had passed so I could take the ondansetron pill that I should have taken first. Death was looking like an attractive alternative.

5/1/2017:
I was deep in the “real” side effects by now. I had severe fatigue and a woozy stomach, no appetite, bone pain and headache (probably because I couldn’t get coffee down). Most of this day was spent in bed. I tried taking CBD to help with the nausea, since I was getting constipated from the chemo and anti-nausea meds. I got the dosing wrong on the CBD, fell asleep, waking with a gasp because I thought I’d stopped breathing. Disconcerting, to say the least. For the record, I figured the dosing out by my second infusion.

Chemo dries everything out!

5/2/2017:
My fatigue was starting to improve and my appetite was coming back, but my stomach couldn’t handle food (fun fact: chemo made the lining of my GI tract slough off). It was a frustrating situation: I was hungry but unable to eat. My throat felt raw and my skin was getting chapped. The inside of my mouth was drying out and it felt like there was gunk on my teeth even after brushing them.

Warning, TMI! I, the multi-decade vegetarian, was officially constipated. This was a miserable feeling. It took an hour of straining on the toilet to finally produce a post-chemo bowel movement, at which point I decided that I’d rather starve than go through that again. With subsequent infusions, I was able to tweak my diet and avoid a repeat. I can’t imagine going through this on a regular basis!

5/3/2017:
Finally! I got a good night’s sleep, although could have used a few hours more. My lips were severely chapped and my throat felt so swollen that swallowing was difficult. I tried eating crackers but as tender as the inside of my mouth was, it felt like I was chewing glass. Luckily, a salt-and-baking soda mouth rinse provided a little relief to the soreness. There was a lot of gunk on my teeth, probably because my GI tract was in rough shape and I was experiencing reflux.

5/4/2017:
This was my first day back to work following the infusion. The intense chemo fatigue had let up, but my throat was still sore, mouth raw and lips chapped. I was getting nosebleeds. I had a huge headache in the morning, but it eased after eating, which still required very soft and bland foods.

5/5/2017:
There was noticeably less mouth and throat pain. Still had a headache and chapped lips along with an itchy scalp. By evening my saliva had a strong bitter taste, making food less palatable.

5/6/2017:
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth overnight! Overall, my mouth and throat were feeling better and it was easier to swallow, but my skin was very dry and itchy, and my scalp tingled. Still, I was feeling much more normal, except that my saliva was still unpleasantly bitter.

5/7/2017:
Skin and lips were still chapped and I was having nosebleeds, but it was easier to eat crunchy foods. My saliva was still bitter but it didn’t seem as bad when I was eating. Swallowing was getting easier to do without feeling like I was taking air into my stomach, something that I realized had caused a lot of discomfort in previous days.

5/8/2017:
Most of my energy had returned. My skin and lips were dry and irritated and I had a runny nose in addition to nosebleeds. Now my mouth was able to handle carbonated drinks along with a more normal diet full of crunchy veggies. This was the first day that I was able to do a workout with weights, even though I had to keep it light.

5/9/2017:
Lips were still chapped and the inside of my mouth stuck to my gums at night. But finally I was able to eat spicier foods and the taste of my saliva had significantly improved. I was continuing to have sleep issues but I’m unsure if this was a leftover side effect or just a general reaction to the anxiety associated with cancer treatment.

5/10/2017:
Still chapped lips and dry mouth, but now I could eat whatever I wanted to with no discomfort.

5/11/2017:
My nose was bleeding much less, but — surprise, surprise — my hair started falling out. As a matter of fact, it was falling out on schedule, as I’d been told to expect hair loss about two weeks following my first chemo. So much for escaping that side effect.

5/12/2017:
Hair was coming out more rapidly. It probably wouldn’t have been noticeable to a bystander, but when I ran my fingers through it, I was left with a handful. I tried not to touch it so that I could get through my workday without creating bald spots.

5/13/2017:
Long hairs were dropping all over the place. I decided to cut my losses and have my husband clip all of it off. My next chemo session not for another five days, so I still had time to enjoy feeling good.

At this point, I had fully recovered from the chemo. In all honesty, the week after my first infusion I had no idea how I could go through it five more times. But with three weeks in between chemo sessions, I had enough of a chance to feel human again. In addition, while I would still have GI tract issues and experience severe fatigue with subsequent infusions, many of the above listed side effects didn’t return. I did, however, experience new ones: water retention, loss of taste, constant tearing of the eyes, very runny nose, loose teeth and the like.

This will pass.

My first infusion was a great lesson in being patient and taking things as they come. The side effects don’t happen all at once; it’s a cascade, with one rising up while another ebbs. When in treatment, the best you can do is to stay in the present and ride them out like waves.

The most important take-home point? Chemotherapy is doable. That doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant experience, but it’s one you can get through.

Invisible Effects: Anxiety

This is tough to write.

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.

Cool, calm, collected…and so not 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.

Invisible Effects: Helplessness

Suffice it to say, simply having cancer can leave you feeling helpless. Ignorance of the cause, uncertainty about the future, fear of treatment effects — that lack of control is frightening. But that’s not the helplessness that I’m writing about here.

In my last post on chemo brain, I alluded to the disorientation that comes from distractedness, brought on by lasting effects of chemotherapy on brain function. Here, I want to drill down and describe the feelings of helplessness that arise. 

In WHY Did I Just Do That?, I wrote about a humorous dream in which I couldn’t understand the reasons for my weird behaviors. But the more sobering side of this is that I often feel that same way during my waking hours. There are things that I’ve done — treating a red light like a stop sign, as mentioned in my previous post — that make absolutely no sense to me and make me feel like I’m not in control of my own behaviors.

To make matters worse, I am not aware that I’m doing anything wrong (or dangerous or illegal!) at the time. When I realize what I’ve done, I’m horrified. Want to feel helpless? Not being able to trust yourself is a pretty good way.

I’ve been told that the main issue is loss of focus. Mindfulness helps immensely in these types of situations, but as anyone who has practiced mindfulness can tell you, you can’t be mindful 100% of the time. In my case, I’m fearful that this distractedness can put others or myself at risk.

This.

Want a few more examples? Some are rather benign, like almost flooding the bathroom because I left the water running in the sink. Or writing an important email and leaving it unsent. Most of us have done something like that at one time or another, likely due to juggling too many tasks at once.

But the things that leave me feeling desperate are the ones that are not easily remedied. Having to learn things over and over again because I’m not retaining information. Having trouble expressing myself and not being able to retrieve words. After working as an editor at one point, this is unbelievably disheartening.

However, one event topped them all: I fell for a (well-designed, admittedly) bank scam where I gave out my Social Security Number despite having taken my work’s cybersecurity training course the previous week, and having received constant reminders from my bank that they will never ask for my SSN over the phone. Besides making me feel unimaginably STUPID, it cost me a good deal of money, time and nerves. 

“Helpless” is not even the best word to describe how I feel. “Hopeless” is a more apt term. “Exposed” and “vulnerable” work too. This begs the question: how much more damage will I do to myself before things start improving? I should be working full-time instead of part-time, given the cost of living in my area. But how can I even think of looking for another job when I’m on such shaky ground? Cancer knocked me down in ways that I never anticipated. Yes, I’m grateful for being alive, but YEESH!

Building new neuronal connections, identifying what aspects of my memory issues are most severe, practicing mindfulness as much as humanly possible — it will take all that, along with a healthy dose of patience, to start seeing improvement. Hope I don’t get distracted and drive off a cliff before then.

Invisible Effects: Chemo Brain

Ah, chemo brain: the eater of thoughts. I should note that what I’m experiencing might not just be the effects of chemotherapy messing with my brain cells. This could also be influenced by the estradiol-blocking drug Tamoxifen that is forcing me into menopause before my natural time, or it could simply be the menopause “fog” that women complain about. So I don’t know exactly what it is, besides being infuriating.

I lose thoughts in an instant. Sometimes I actually “see” them disappear in the distance. It’s such a weirdly tangible sensation. I can try to grasp at their coattails and occasionally I’m successful in latching onto the thoughts and pulling them back. Other times I need to stop and walk back through my thought processes to retrieve them. And then sometimes they’re just gone. My desk at work is covered with post-it notes as a testament to what’s going on in my noggin. If there’s something I need to do I need to write it down NOW, and it’s not unusual for me to lose the thought as I’m in the process of getting something to write it down on!

This is what a walk down my memory lane looks like.

I can juggle up to three things in my mind at a time if I keep repeating them over and over again and work to maintain focus. Any more than that and it quickly crosses into the realm of hopelessness — it’s like knowing how to juggle three balls but if someone tosses a fourth at you, they all crash to the ground.

Then there are those chunks of awareness that disappear. It may simply be distraction and losing focus, but it feels like a hiccup in time that I don’t notice until it’s happened. It’s that “huh?” feeling as I return to present time when I realize that I’ve been gone for a second or two.

More disconcerting is a strange myopia that prevents me from reacting normally in a familiar situation. For instance, several months ago I treated a red light like a stop sign, and this was a familiar traffic light in my neighborhood that I’d been through many times. I briefly stopped at it, then drove through it. It was a “T” intersection that’s not terribly busy, but I did get shocked back to reality by the angry honk of a car that had the green and was probably wondering WTF I was doing. 

The bottom line is that I’m distractable beyond belief. My train of thought gets derailed before it even leaves the station. The first time I noticed this, my oncologist ordered a brain MRI, way back in February. Nope, couldn’t blame it on a brain tumor — it’s just chemo brain.

This feels demoralizing, especially since my memory used to be so good. I lament losing all those awesome thoughts and ideas. And I know they were awesome because I remember having them — I just can’t recall exactly what they were. Yeah, there will be more, but I better have a notepad nearby to write them down. I even had a better ending for this post, but, you know…

Treating the Whole Patient

Falling ill in the 1960s, my grandmother was never told by her doctors that she had pancreatic cancer. That seemed to be a fairly common tact when the outcome was bleak: there was no question the end was coming once you got a diagnosis, so why stress the patient even more? 

And survivorship? What was that? Surviving was a long shot and anyone who did make it through was told to be happy that they were still alive. Lingering side effects were considered a small price to pay. But with the advent of more effective treatments, the population of survivors has grown significantly. These days, there is a future for cancer patients, and with that a growing need to address the distresses that may plague former patients for many years to come. 

There are the physical repercussions that we often hear about, such as neuropathy, lymphedema and heart troubles. But more attention needs to be paid to what goes on in the space between patients’ ears. The psychological effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment can be just as, if not more, debilitating and long-lasting. 

It’s the pain no one else sees that hurts the most.

I am fortunate to live in an area of the United States with exceptional medical care and several highly reputable cancer centers. However, I’m even luckier that the particular hospital system my family is part of has gone to great lengths to make sure that they treat the whole patient, offering outstanding psychological support at the cancer center. Not only are there support groups and a variety of classes, but there are exceptional clinical counselors available to deal specifically with mental health issues associated with cancer. Based on what I’ve been told by patients at other facilities, such an enhanced level of emotional support is a rarity.

This is disappointing. We have finally chipped away at the stigma surrounding cancer and have improved the survival rate, but we have much more to do to support patients and survivors in treating the emotional effects of the disease.