What is this “getting over” cancer treatment? Or “getting over” anything, for that matter? We may go to therapy, we may meditate or “forgive” or whatever our practice calls for, but we don’t shed the past like an old skin.
I went for my six-month post-treatment follow-up with my oncologist’s nurse practitioner. (They’re putting off a scan until closer to my one-year mark, in June.) I told her I feel a fair amount of fatigue, that I need a nap—often for an hour—every afternoon, and she said, “Well, that’s your new normal.”
According to Anne Katz, in her book, After You Ring the Bell. . .10 Challenges for the Cancer Survivor, one study found that 33% of cancer survivors report that they’ve had fatigue for a total of about two weeks in any one month, more than five years after treatment. So about half the time, people who’ve had chemo and/or radiation feel tired. As Katz says, the tiredness is not helped by rest or sleep and is “greater in magnitude and persists longer than would be expected with fatigue for any other reason, such as exercise.”
Well, duh, you half-poison anything with chemicals—your body, the earth—and it shows the effects for a long, long time. Rippling effects. More vulnerability to other diseases, to more cancer, to osteoporosis, to more fatigue.
But Katz has a whole chapter on exercise with the clear message that the more you can do, the less you’ll be tired. Well, duh again. I know that, but when you’ve felt bad for a long time, you develop a different attitude, that maybe you need to “take care” of yourself, get plenty of sleep. Rest. People say that to you because they can’t think of anything else that might be helpful, and they want to help. You begin to believe it.
The farther I get from treatment, the more I see that I won’t ever be the same. I’ve been severely damaged. This is good to see, to know, because instead of thinking any day now this will be better, I can begin to adjust. If I’d had a leg amputated, I’d finally say, “Okay, this is the way it is. Now let’s see how much I can do with what I have.”
So, what can I do? The winter’s has been so very long and cold. It was below zero again this morning. My exercise routine has been way truncated. I’ve been walking—either at the Commons, where we’ll be moving—or at the mall with Jerry for about a mile every day. Not good enough, I know, but about right for Jerry after his back surgery. I need to pick up the pace. What I really need is warm weather, and my bike, but in the meantime, I vow to give up other things to get more exercise.
Here’s the deal: I can’t get to my desk until about 9 or 9:30 in the morning, after my (important) stretching routine, my meditation time, and breakfast. None of those am I willing to abandon. Then I write and answer email until noon. Then afternoon we have errands, appointments, and I need a nap. I squeeze whatever exercise I do into that time. (I’m no good doing any writing in late afternoon or evening. Not any more. In the old days, I’d grade papers at night, but that was the old days.) Something needs to change.
I’ve spent a lot of hours in my life at a desk. Or sitting in a chair reading. But if you want to have energy, you have to use it. I can’t believe the ridiculous simplicity of this. I can’t believe I’m even having to talk about this. I, who have always loved to walk, swim, bike. The difference is, now it’s serious. Do it or else.
That message, “Get used to it. This is the new normal,” was good for me. I am not about to give in to this tiredness until I’ve proven there’s no help for it. Hear me and Helen Reddy roar.
I’ll report later on whatever changes I make. Hold me to it. If I don’t say something in two weeks, write to let me know.
It is sobering, that one doesn’t just return to “normal.” There’s such a desire to be the same person, full of optimism and energy. Yet there’s that bass note, as I’ve called it before, that deep knowledge of one’s mortality. And there are the physical reverberations that go on and on.
I could now say what a good thing it is to grow wiser, etc. And all that’s true! How strong the inclination is to balance the scales—one good thing for one bad thing! I prefer to look as squarely as I can into the lion’s mouth, count the teeth, and say “So? My head’s in the lion’s mouth. Let’s see, I may have time to write another book before he snaps his jaws. I may get to see my youngest grandchild graduate from college. He may grow tired and back off. Why waste my time trying to analyze the situation?”
P.S. You should be able to comment now without getting hung up with an improperly working captcha. It’s okay now. You need to type the numeral, not the word. It’s necessary to keep this, because the site was getting hacked without it.