(Almost) Two Years on Tamoxifen: A Change in Plans

This weekend would have marked two years of taking tamoxifen, the estradiol-blocking medication that is supposed to keep my hormone-positive breast cancer from recurring.

As it turns out, there will be no such commemoration. Several weeks ago, I started noticing a funny cramping feeling in the general area of my uterus. It was light and under any other circumstances, I would have ignored it, but use of tamoxifen is associated with an increased risk of endometrial/uterine cancer, so it kept me on edge.

It’s worth noting that the increased risk is actually for postmenopausal women, and to the best of my knowledge, I was not yet postmenopausal. That’s why pre- and perimenopausal women are started on tamoxifen but taken off of it as soon as they go through menopause. Still the sensation, although intermittent, didn’t go away.

I finally called my oncologist. As it was, I was wary of tamoxifen – I already blamed it for a number of other negative things that I experienced: fatigue, hair thinning, low libido, cognitive issues, mood swings, general misery…all of those and more were listed as possible side effects.

I complained about the light cramping to an oncological nurse, who was surprised that I didn’t have a recent pap smear on record, because according to her, the oncologist wanted me to have one yearly. Mind you, pap smears are for cervical cancer, and I wasn’t at an increased risk for that. But whatever. The nurse gave me her blessing to stay off tamoxifen until I next saw the oncologist.

Conveniently, my oncologist appointment was in three days.

I was stressed, because if there’s one thing that being a cancer survivor made me good at, it was stressing. So much so, that my blood pressure hit 165/95 at my appointment. I couldn’t get over how ridiculous that was and how my thoughts had generated that sort of a reaction. I don’t think my pressure was even that high before my cancer surgery, at a time when my anxiety was raging and everything felt out of control.

I had a prolonged discussion (negotiation?) with my oncologist. In the end, we decided the following: I could take a month off tamoxifen and meet with him again in six weeks. In the meantime, I would go to my gynecologist to rule out endometrial cancer. (Incidentally, a week later at the gynecologist’s office my blood pressure was back down to a very reasonable 102/64.)

No more tamoxifen? Yeah, I feel like celebrating.

My oncologist and my clinical counselor (who I discovered had spoken to him about me) thought that some of the worst side effects that I was experiencing were not due to tamoxifen, but anxiety. My onc suggested that if nothing improved after a month off tamoxifen, I should consider anti-anxiety meds.

But he also checked my hormone levels to see where I was in my journey into menopause. A few days later, I got the news: I was officially postmenopausal and was told to not restart tamoxifen.

So, okay, no more tamoxifen. I was also quite happy that I managed to transition through menopause without any significant hot flashes. The downside of this was, however, that I would be put on an aromatase inhibitor, which came with its own set of side effects, not the least of which was significant bone pain and bone density loss.

Or at least those were some of the effects that I remembered from the last time that I read about them, which was a while ago. This time, I’ve decided, I won’t go back and research all the negatives of the medication. Anxiety does hit me hard, I have to admit, and I want to be sure that I’m really experiencing what I’m experiencing and not simply being influenced by what I’ve read.

So I’ll give the new medication a fair shake and give myself a break by not getting worked up by what *might* happen. As the gynecologist said, looking over my bloodwork, “Actually, you’re really healthy, except for having had breast cancer.” I’m going to go with that and see where it takes me.

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.

Sleep, the Ultimate Good

I hold sleep as one of the most critical elements of self-care in our lives. Get enough sleep and the whole world looks brighter. But ignore the call of the mattress and dire consequences await.

This is especially true for me, as I slog through the ever-changing side effects of my current anti-cancer therapy (Tamoxifen). The amount and quality of sleep I get sets the tone of my day and determines my resilience to work and life stress. In addition, sufficient sleep has a significant positive effect on my cognitive functioning, which took a hit from cancer treatment.

But this is not limited to my personal experience. The more we learn about the science of sleep, the more we understand how our electronics-driven lifestyles disrupt sleep patterns and affect us as a society.

Dr. Matt Walker (UC Berkeley) is a strong proponent of sleep, and for good reason. He outlines in his TED talk (19:19) below some of the latest research on the repercussions of not getting enough shut-eye, and it’s not pretty. As a cancer survivor, I find this information particularly sobering. While I’ve written about the downside of placing superhuman expectations on ourselves, having THIS kind of superpower, getting sufficient sleep, is literally life-preserving.

Let’s start with “testicles”…

Dr. Walker’s two main suggestions for good sleep? (14:16 in the video)
1) Keeping a regular sleep schedule, retiring and rising at the same time regardless of day of the week.
2) Keeping your bedroom temperature at about 65°F (no mean feat without A/C in the summer months!).

For many of us, improving the amount and quality of our sleep will take concerted planning and possibly sacrifices. We live in a 24-hour-a-day world and sometimes we try to keep up with that ’round-the-clock pace; ultimately, however, we pay the price for it. There should be no question that sleep is critical to our well-being and it’s time that we give it the priority that it deserves.

A Mini-Guide to Surviving Chemo Brain; or, “Wait, what were we talking about?”

While it’s not my intention to write advice columns for breast cancer patients, because I posted ‘getting through chemo‘ tips, I might as well follow up with what I’ve learned about handling the memory and focus issues associated with chemo brain.

Note, first, that chemo brain may not be all chemo. There may be various factors involved (chemo, tamoxifen, onset of menopause, even the tumor itself) and it’s difficult to tease out which one is the main culprit. Be that as it may, it still sucks when you’re standing in your closet, wondering why you went in there…for the tenth time today.

I put a lot of blame for this lack of focus and fleeting short-term memory on the estrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen, which is given to women with hormone receptor positive tumors. I can’t tell you how many physicians have assured me that it’s a “great drug” for decreasing risk of tumor recurrence. And an equally large number of women who have told me that their lives improved after they got off it.

Regardless, for now chemo brain is a fact of my life, so in the spirit of accepting what I cannot change, here are my best practices for making sure that chemo brain doesn’t get me fired from my job:

At least I know it’s there…
  • Write down your thoughts. And do it immediately. I’ve actually lost thoughts as I was scrounging for a writing utensil. If I have to remember something, I put it in writing, often on a sticky-note that goes on my computer monitor or bathroom mirror. Some place that I look at multiple times a day. I do this to excess, with notes everywhere, but it works. It also decreases my stress levels because I know the thought has been recorded.
  • If you can’t write it down, repetez! Repeat it in your head. Sounds obvious and overly simplistic? Perhaps, but you only need to do this until you either no longer need the thought, or get to a place where you can jot down a note. Of course, I ruined the last part of a meditation retreat for myself because a load of great post topics popped into my head and I had no place to record them. On the bright side, I realized I could juggle seven items in my head for a half hour if I concentrated on them!
  • Narrate what you’re doing. I’ve had to resort to this, especially when working on a multi-step process where accuracy counts. Yes, I’ve made mistakes on the “I-must-be-smoking-crack” scale, and this is often one of the best ways to avoid that. When I hear myself say what I’m supposed to be doing, I stay on task and am less likely to wander off.
  • Avoid distractions. This is probably the most critical piece of advice I can offer. Distractions are death to my thoughts because I go down rabbit holes before I’m even aware of what happened. The Google page of my Firefox browser at work suggests articles to read based on my browsing history, and let me tell ya, there are few feelings worse than suddenly realizing that you are lost deep in an article on body language when you should have been finishing up a report that’s due in a hour. How’d that happen? Anything that breaks my concentration — even a tickle of a distraction — can sidetrack me for minutes before I come to my senses.

Bottom line is, stay present. If there were one general rule of thumb to preserve your functioning while in the grips of chemo brain, that would be it.

The above hints may seem obvious, but I went through a lot of frustration until I accepted that my brain had changed and it couldn’t be ‘business as usual’ anymore. Once I started working around my limitations, things got a lot easier.

Invisible Effects: Body Image, Part 2

Oddly enough, one of the things that scared me about cancer was that it threatened all the work I’d put into my body. Being a bit under six feet tall since my teenage years, I was called “big” a lot whether or not I was overweight. At 16, I went through a phase of disordered eating. That passed, but I retained a sensitivity to how I was perceived by others. Always, I was fearful of being judged, and that pushed me towards perfectionism.

Fast-forward to 2017 and my diagnosis. When I started researching breast cancer, one thing that struck me was that the information I found didn’t mesh with my conception of what cancer was, in terms of what the treatment did to the patient. I had always thought of cancer treatment as having a wasting effect on the sufferer. But then I read of the propensity that many breast cancer patients had for putting on excess weight, not only throughout chemo, but also due to taking estradiol-blocking medications like Tamoxifen.

Wait, what? Gaining weight? But I’d always thought that cancer patients lost weight! Sure enough, google “breast cancer weight gain” and you get a lot of entries from reputable sources that warn about this tendency to pack on weight. My Nurse Navigator echoed that point, noting that many women “put on 10-15 pounds.”

Many decisions in my life have been motivated by a fear of being judged.

This provoked a lot of frustration. I had established excellent diet and fitness habits for the very purpose of building strength and endurance and avoiding the weight gain that accompanies advancing age. I had kept emotion out of my food choices (kudos to my mother for being careful about not connecting food and emotion). During my time as a stay-at-home-mom, I’d obtained a highly-respected personal trainer certification because I wanted to be sure I knew what I was talking about. My standards were high, but even if I couldn’t attain my version of “perfection”, I put in 100% effort and that made me feel good.

And then, cancer. Despite doing everything I could think of to maintain peak health, I still had not been able to prevent the development of my tumor. That was extremely unsettling. But for me, having my whole body shape change as a result of this was almost worse.

Predictions of the future raced through my mind: I was going to lose my lean mass, lose my fitness and put on ten or more pounds. I would be judged for “letting myself go”. None of this would be under my control. Just like the cancer, it was all happening to me, and as far as I was concerned it was bound to ruin my life, whether or not it actually killed me.

However, as with so many other things related to my cancer, this didn’t go the way statistics predicted. And that’s why there’s a Part 3 to this body image series…

A Year With Tamoxifen

One of the most distressing parts of going through cancer treatment was that I thought it would “ruin everything”, even if it saved my life. Physically, I was really enjoying my 50s and hadn’t noticed much of a drop in endurance and strength, and certainly wasn’t experiencing menopausal symptoms. But with my diagnosis came the news that, because I had an estrogen receptor positive tumor, I’d need to be taking estrogen-blocking Tamoxifen (or an aromatase inhibitor) for a decade.

A decade is a long time! Chemo was only six courses over about four months and radiation lasted only six weeks — all time-limited and psychologically doable. But Tamoxifen would be with me for ten years, and presumably, so would the troublesome side effects, according to just about every woman who was taking it. They spoke about how difficult it was to stick to the daily regimen, knowing that it was responsible for horrible hot flashes and night sweats — one woman even said that she couldn’t exercise due to the severity of her symptoms.

Not exercise?!?! My version of hell: a sedentary existence.

At this point, I was busy dying a thousand deaths. I started to question whether death by cancer was a preferable alternative to a decade of misery. Mind you, I hadn’t even begun taking Tamoxifen yet; all of this was fear-driven. I feared having no control over my own existence and the things that really mattered to me. Basically, this was an end to life as I knew it.

So, fast forward to today. I have been on Tamoxifen for a year. I’m still waiting for the misery. Please note, I do not, for a second, doubt that women struggle with Tamoxifen’s side effects and I have the utmost sympathy for them. I also realize that I’ve been very fortunate so far to not have those types of symptoms. Sometimes I feel a little warm and have to roll up my sleeves or take off a sweater. Being in stuffy rooms can feel uncomfortable. But these don’t constitute what has been described to me as a hot flash, and I cannot recall whether I had those same sensations prior to treatment. Before my diagnosis, I’d had some sweaty nights from stress; I haven’t had a single night like that since starting Tamoxifen.

I do have some memory issues, particularly distractibility and loss of focus. Sticking to one thing at a time is an absolute necessity or else I’ll get sidetracked. My libido took a hit too. But is that Tamoxifen, effects of chemo…or just the onset of menopause?

The bottom line is, I had beaten myself up over potential effects of a medication way before I’d experienced it. I’d ignored the number one rule of cancer: everyone’s experience is different. Oddly enough, that had been the mantra I repeated to everyone else, but I’m the one who needed the reminder. For me, Tamoxifen has not turned out to be the torture that I’d expected.

If there’s a take-home message from this, it’s that cancer is a complex disease and its treatment is equally complex. Just as there is personalized medicine, there are individual reactions to that medicine. I, for one, have convinced myself that I need to stay off the Internet, take a deep breath and have my own experience.