It’s been a few weeks since the start of chemotherapy, and I’ve gotten used to its side-effects. I’ve had 3 sessions of chemotherapy (spaced 2 weeks apart), and am about to receive my 4th session. By now, I’ve become a lot more experienced thanks to the detailed diary of symptoms I keep.
I’m glad I found the recipe with the careful combination of my 3 anti-nausea medications (dexamethasone, ondansetron, olanzapine). The trick is to prevent the nausea from developing in the first place. It took a few tries to find the right balance between treating the nausea and falling asleep from the medication side-effects. There is still the occasional retching, but I’ve gotten into the habit of moving on as quickly as possible, and not letting it paralyze me like it used to. Keep calm, carry on.
For a few days after receiving chemotherapy, I become extremely sensitive to cold in the hands and feet. Cold water feels like liquid nitrogen after a few seconds of exposure. To avoid the pain, I’ve developed new habits. When turning on the tap, I use my elbow to check the temperature to make sure it’s at least lukewarm. I use oven mitts to grab items from the fridge, and anything that comes out needs to be warmed to room temperature. I stay clear of the refrigerated and frozen section at the groceries store to avoid the choking sensation from breathing cold air. I ask the waiter to hold the ice in my water. It’s a good thing that we’re in the middle of summer!
During the first week after chemotherapy, I feel very tired and don’t have any motivation to make any plans. I consistently sleep 10 hours a day, and take a nap in the afternoon. This may be the only time in my life when I oversleep and do not feel any guilt. I do try to get out of the house and go for walks. There is a persistent fog in my head, which is reflected in my slower thinking and shorter attention span. During the second week, my energy comes back and I feel like a new man. My energy level knows no bounds, and my mind is as sharp as ever. With the false sense of invulnerability, I revert to my old habits of under-sleeping and overworking. I even went on a 2-hour bike ride last week. By the time I reach peak energy levels, my next chemotherapy session is due, my energy gets depleted again, and the cycle repeats. Thankfully, the fatigue is not permanent.
I know of very few people who look forward to shaving their heads for chemotherapy, and I was no exception. My hair started falling out 2 weeks after starting chemo. At first, I notice a few extra strands of hair on my comb, but very quickly chunks of hair would fall out with the slightest traction. This was irritating; there was hair EVERYWHERE in the house. Every morning my pillow was covered in hair, and served as a daily reminder that my old hairstyle had to go. So I decided to shave my head. Walking around with a shaved head raises some questions in public, where I get surprised looks and compliments (“You look way better than you did when you had hair”), but for the most part people care less than I thought, which is also nice.
Ultimately, what truly helped me get through these side-effects is knowing what to expect. Uncertainty tends to amplify any negative experience. I’m someone who by nature likes to think ahead and stay on top of things, so mental preparation helps me move on and downplay these symptoms. The other trick is altering my perspective to be satisfied with what I have, rather than focusing on what I’ve lost. Lastly, encouragement from family and friends, for which I am extremely grateful, has been more helpful than I expected. The storm has arrived, and I’m lucky to be equipped with high-end Gore-Tex raingear and a sunny personality.