Looks like visiting a cardiologist after stopping aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer was a good idea after all.
The letrozole (aromatase inhibitor) that I’d been taking has been associated with cardiovascular effects, and since I was feeling progressively worse from the medication, I wanted to make sure that everything checked out okay.
It seems like the American Heart Association (AHA) agrees with my concerns. An April 26, 2021 statement by the AHA underscored the complicated picture of cancer treatments, in this case hormonal therapies for breast and prostate cancer. As stated in the article by Okwuosa et al. (2021) published in Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine, “As patients with hormone-dependent cancers continue to live longer, CVD [cardiovascular disease] has emerged as a leading cause of mortality and morbidity among survivors of these cancers.”
Ironically, breast and prostate cancers are some of the most common cancers in women and men, in addition to having some of the most effective treatments. The number is of breast and prostate cancer survivors is growing. Part of the success of treatment is expressly due to the development of hormonal therapies for long-term (5-10 year) use. At the same time, the increase in CVD problems is a result of this success, because as cancer survivors age they experience greater amounts of age-related cardiovascular events than do non-cancer surivors.
So, what do you do when the treatment that’s increasing your chances of beating cancer may also be increasing your chances of a cardiovascular event? Isn’t that one of the many problems with cancer? If your treatment works well, then that opens the door to having it work “too enthusiastically”, possibly with long-lasting negative effects.
The AHA statement paper cited here stresses the importance of communicating with your oncological team about CVD risk factors and possibly requesting a referral to a cardiologist, having appropriate tests conducted (ECG/EKG, echocardiogram), and–in my opinion the most important thing the survivors themselves can do–modify lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking cessation, etc.) to maximize your chances of a cardiovascular event-free survivorship.
While it may be frustrating to think of entering into an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” scenario with a potential leapfrog from cancer to CVD, nothing is written in stone. You can make an effort to protect yourself and avoid being a statistic. Focusing on healthy living will benefit you in many ways and is guaranteed to improve your life, no matter what your risks.
Link to the AHA statement: Okwuosa et al. (2021) Impact of Hormonal Therapies for Treatment of Hormone-Dependent Cancers (Breast and Prostate) on the Cardiovascular System: Effects and Modifications: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circ Genom Precis Med, DOI: 10.1161/HCG.0000000000000082
It was just few days short of four years from my diagnostic mammogram, the one after which I was told I had triple-positive breast cancer.
If you or someone you love has been through this experience, you know the drill: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, maybe monoclonal antibodies, endocrine therapy. Yours may come in a different flavor, but the dish is the same, give or take.
Last Thursday, following three years of endocrine therapy (two of tamoxifen and one of letrozole [aromatase inhibitor]), I called it quits, with my oncologist’s permission. The side effects of the letrozole became too much for my joints, my brain, my intimate relationship, and possibly even my heart. My doc said he knew it when he saw me and agreed that enough was enough.
Keep in mind the song that all of us cancer folk sing: “everyone’s experience is different.” Based on my personal situation, and after a medical consult, this was the right decision for me.
I wanted to know what to watch out for, so my doc said:
1. Unexplained weight loss 2. Persistent cough 3. Neurological issues (i.e., seeing things that aren’t there, blurred vision, etc.)
Obviously, there are other signs of cancer recurrence, but those are what my oncologist wanted me to be particularly wary of. And then he noted that he couldn’t remember the last time one of his HER2+ patients had a relapse, so effective is the Herceptin that we’re given. But it has heart risks.
Since I’ve been off letrozole only a few days, I’m still experiencing most of the side effects–it will take several weeks to shake them.
I almost don’t know what to do with myself, and I’d be beside myself with joy if it weren’t for a possible heart arrhythmia (!) that I am experiencing. I’ve already scheduled an appointment with a cardiologist.
Yeah, I’m miffed that there’s always something with cancer. A week prior to my onc appointment I’d been in my car at a traffic light when I felt heart palpitations, sort of–and then I started seeing dark spots, like you do before you faint. The episode passed, but I had been having those brief palpitations for months, minus the spots. Maybe once a day? Maybe less.
And over a year ago, I went in for a regular health check-up, during which time the nurse practitioner checked my vitals and noted that there was some irregularity in my heartrate.
Just like with my cancerous lump, I waited, thinking would go away. But chemo and especially Herceptin are cardiotoxic, and aromatase inhibitors have been associated with heart arrhythmias. So just as soon as I got off the cancer carousel, I’m getting on the cardiac one–until I’m able to rule out problems.
I have both a 3-D mammogram and an EKG next week, and I’m way more worried about the EKG. Who would have expected that from a breast cancer survivor?
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.
There seems to be so much back-and-forth in the life of a breast cancer survivor. I really thought things would settle down eventually, but it seems like they refuse to.
Let’s back up. First, there’s the shock and anxiety of being told you have breast cancer. Because the average age at diagnosis for women is 62, most of these women grew up at a time when cancer was strongly linked to death. While treatment, and therefore survivability, has greatly improved in recent decades, a cancer diagnosis is still frightening.
That life-saving treatment comes with a reputation for nastiness. Surgery seems like the easy part; it’s the chemotherapy and radiation that we’ve heard horrible things about. I myself had six infusions, each three weeks apart. I assure you, I memorized the calendar, knew the dates of the infusions and the order of my drugs. Even about what time each one would begin on the infusion day. I counted the minutes to the end. Then came radiation, but that seemed like a cake walk in comparison.
Once through ALL of that, you figure that the treatment portion of your cancer is over and you have the rest of your life to ride into the sunset, basking in the warm glow along the way.
But for those of us with hormone receptor positive (HR+) cancer, there’s this little thing called endocrine therapy that seems like an afterthought when you’re going through the “tough stuff”.
Yet it does feel like a slap in the face when you’re “done”, because you’re not really done. And that’s where we find out that while chemo and radiation were the “running the gauntlet” phase of cancer — abusive, but time-limited — for many, the hormone therapy afterwards is like doing the Ironman triathlon. Except the water, bike and road are on fire. Because it’s hell.
Okay, about here is where I have to stress, my experiences with tamoxifen and the aromatase inhibitor letrozole (Femara) have not been as brutal as for other women. At the same time, they’ve not come without complications. Currently, I’m dealing with painfully stiff joints, weird bone pain, loss of libido (hubby’s fave), hair thinning (grrrr, I thought I was done with this when I finished chemo!), memory issues (wait, what?) and other side effects that I’m pretending I can ignore.
On the bright side, it is gratifying to know that what I’m experiencing is not all in my head, nor is it as bad as it could be. In fact, I found a valuable post (one of many!) on the blog Nancy’s Point, entitled “The Dark Side of Aromatase Inhibitors“. Not only is the post a great read, but what makes it so eye-opening is the comments section. Nancy invites readers to share their experiences, and wow, do they!
If you choose to venture there, keep in mind that everyone reacts differently to these medications. People with negative reactions may be quicker to share than those with less extreme reactions.
So if you’ve been told that you need adjuvant endocrine therapy following the “main” cancer treatments, do your homework. PLEASE know that not everyone has miserable side effects from them, and I strongly urge you to give the medications a try to see how well you tolerate them. You may surprise yourself. Note what side effects you’re experiencing and the date of onset so that you verify that the reaction is related to the drug.
Then, if you truly cannot handle the discomfort (no shame there!), you will be able to show why. Discuss other options with your medical team. Whatever amount you were able to tolerate will offer you that much more protection, and that will still benefit you.
I feel that I need to revisit the whole letrozole thingie, just to be fair.
In my last post I expressed my frustration with the continued side effects of the estrogen-supressing aromatase inhibitors designed to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Cancer survivors face a considerable amount of pressure from our oncologists to stay on these medications, but everyone agrees that their use does not come without health risks or hits to one’s quality of life. The latter is a squishy concept that is not easily quantifiable.
Deciding whether to take medications for the length of time prescribed, or stop them early, comes down to an individual’s tolerance of both the side effects and risk.
So after all the complaining in my last post, the big question I have in front of me is that, given that I’m already postmenopausal — regardless of the fact that it was the medication that pushed me into menopause — if I were to stop letrozole, would I experience a significant improvement of my complaints? And if I could reverse the side effects how long would it take? None of that is clear.
Granted, there remains additional risk in taking an aromatase inhibitor, particularly long-term, as the cessation of estrogen production contributes to aging and age-related maladies, including heart issues, bone loss and broken bones. And certainly, there is gradual collagen and hair loss, not to mention suppression of the libido.
But if we ignore that for now, I have to admit that not all days are as bad as how I described them. I don’t lie in bed staring at the ceiling while every single side effect hits me all at once. I experience them here and there. And most of them are tolerable.
My fear is about the future. If I’m feeling this now, what will it be like in another six months or a year? What if things go downhill gradually and I don’t realize it until later when I’ve slid so far down that nothing is salvageable. That’s completely ignoring the realities of the “now” for the imagined troubles of tomorrow. That is not being mindful!
But unfortunately, with medications such as these, the future is a factor that must be taken into account, and with that comes anxiety. Of course, anxiety always makes things worse. For me, it’s one of the most difficult side effects of cancer, because it magnifies all the negatives, both real and imagined.
I realized after I submitted the last post, after I complained about all the things I was experiencing, that not everything was as horrible as I thought. Things are not “normal”, and the situation is still applying a frustrating pressure on my quality of life. But maybe, for now, can I hold on and get the most out of the benefits of letrozole, and then re-evaluate tomorrow?
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.
Not gonna lie, I really did not want to go on yet another medication, but for this appointment, I left all the journal articles at home and put away the boxing gloves. I promised my oncologist that I would stay off the forums, stay off PubMed, quit overthinking things and give letrozole a chance.
The reason? My oncologist thinks that my earlier frustration with tamoxifen was, to put it bluntly, in my head. And my clinical counselor suggested that what I complained of could be explained by anxiety. But I swore that my memory and focus issues started with tamoxifen.
You know what? I’m not so sure now.
The fact is, everything that I was experiencing could have been caused by anxiety (or menopause). And even more striking were the things that I didn’t experience. Not only did I not have significant hot flashes (maybe a “warm flush” here or there, easily countered by taking off a sweater), I never had night sweats. Heck, I had more night sweats before my cancer.
No weight gain, either, which had been another big concern of mine. I’ve been disciplined in maintaining healthy fitness habits throughout my adult life, probably to the point that most people wouldn’t tolerate. Tamoxifen didn’t manage to mess with that, which was extremely gratifying.
While I really want to peg the concentration problems, distractability, flagging libido and other negatives on estrogen-blockers, a retrospective look at my emotional history suggests that (1) I’m highly suggestible (I need to stay off the internet!), (2) there have been loads of anxiety-amplifying events in my life, even before cancer, that I haven’t handled well, and (3) I would be better off shutting up, taking the pill and working on getting my mental state in order.
I mean, I already knew most of this. But some things need to hit me between the eyes a number of times before they actually register.
So, while my oncologist warned me about “a little joint pain” (eek!), I’ve avoided anything but a cursory glance at what I might experience on letrozole, besides what reactions would necessitate calling the doctors.
We’ll see how bad these side effects really are.
A FINAL NOTE – According to what was written on the bottle, this stuff can cause dizziness and impair my ability to operate a vehicle. Seriously? I didn’t expect that, but here’s what I’m going to do with that tidbit of information: I’m going to view letrozole as a reason to get to bed earlier, since I’ll obviously have to take it in the evening. And I’m going to tell myself that this is going to help me sleep. Who knows, maybe it will?
“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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.