Four days out from my second treatment, I couldn’t imagine doing another three or more months of this. The side effects seemed a little more heightened than after the first time around. I’m not sure if they really were or if my expectations were different. I expected to feel bad the first time, and when I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I would, I was surprised. Maybe this time, it was the opposite. The nausea seemed a little worse, less able to be tamped down by snacks and ginger tea. The brain fog and fatigue lasted an extra day.
It’s hard to pick a worst part of the aftermath of treatment. It’s probably the mental fog and fatigue. I lump those together because it’s hard to distinguish one from the other sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I have the physical energy to do something but my brain is so mushy that I cannot make it tell my body to do it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and it’s seemingly impossible to overcome. I think that I should just be able to will myself to focus, but I cannot. Even simple tasks like doing the laundry or cooking a meal seem daunting.
Or maybe the worst part is the smell. I can’t explain what it smells like, but I catch whiffs of the chemicals on me when I pee and taste them in my mouth. For days, my clothes reek of chemo. When I need to urinate, it feels more urgent, like my body is screaming at me to get this poison out of my body. It feels disgusting. It’s nauseating. It seems silly that this could be the worst part of treatment so far, but it is the most poignant reminder of what is happening to me.
And then there is the nausea, which actually is not a contender for the worst side effect so far. It’s annoying, but it’s not as hard to deal with as the fatigue and the brain fog and the smell. I’m determined to stay off the nausea meds that my oncologist prescribed, aside from the ones that are given to me in an IV during each treatment. I don’t want to be dealing with even more weird side effects, especially constipation, because I’m already experiencing a lot of chemo-induced GI issues. Instead, I’ve stocked up on ginger and so far have found that the worst of the nausea can be controlled by eating a small amount frequently.
When I am in the midst of these side effects, I feel like there is no way I can get through all this without becoming irreparably broken. I am literally being pumped full of chemicals designed to kill cells. For four or five days after treatment, I feel like there is no way I’m going to ever be strong and healthy again.
But on day six, I wake up feeling relatively normal. I don’t need to sleep in. My mind feels clear. The nausea is gone and I no longer smell the chemo on myself. It’s not so bad, I think. I ride my bike, and each day I feel a little better and can handle a slightly harder effort. By day nine, I feel good. I still have weird things going on with my body and life doesn’t completely go back to normal, but I can honestly say that I feel pretty alright.
They say that with each round of chemo, the side effects get worse. It’s “cumulative.” I hope I have enough days of it’s not so bad to get me through in between each treatment every time. That’s the point — that’s why treatments are scheduled when they are and not closer together — to allow some time in between for the body (and just as importantly, the mind) to recover and be ready for the next battle.
The way time seems to move right now is paradoxical. For the first time since perhaps I was in school waiting for summer vacation, I find myself wishing away the days, weeks, and months. Normally, I complain that time moves to fast. I’ve found myself panicking about that on occasion. There is not enough time to do all the things I want and “need” to do. But now, with my biggest need focused on getting through this and my biggest want to be done and on the other side, time moves slower than it has in years. Yet, in the space in between treatments when I am feeling good, I begin to feel rushed again, like there isn’t enough time during those limited days when I am not fatigued and foggy to get work done and write and ride my bike without feeling exhausted. Time is moving fast and slow all at once.
I know now more than ever how much of a gift time really is. Not because I ever thought I was going to die — my cancer has a cure rate of over 90% — but because there are so many things I feel like I didn’t take advantage of when I was healthy. I made excuses to not do things I wanted to do.
I don’t have time. Now isn’t a good time. I’m too busy with work, or house projects, or [insert more excuses here]. I don’t feel comfortable. I’m not a strong enough rider. I’m not trained enough. I don’t know any of those people. I don’t have enough experience. I don’t have the right gear.
I am done with that. When I get through this, I cannot wait to ride my bike all the places that I have always wanted to go but didn’t, with all the people I keep saying I should ride with. I want to hug everyone who has reached out to send their well-wishes. I didn’t think that many people even like me or care — that has been an eye-opener in the best of ways.
Maybe it is premature and foolish to start dreaming of the post-cancer life. There are still so many things that could go wrong, but aren’t there always? There are a million bad things that can happen to us but that doesn’t mean we stop dreaming. My thoughts, feelings and emotions swing wildly between not seeing how this could possibly work out alright and absolutely knowing without a doubt that they will. It feels dangerous to dream but at the same time it is keeping me going. And while dreams are keeping me going, all I actually have is right now.
I do not want to wish time away. To be okay with the present — to make the most of it, be content in it — is what we all strive for and most of us fall short of. I know I always have. One day at a time and living in the moment is a lesson I desperately need to learn, and it seems life has thrown me the perfect opportunity to do so. I want to skip to the happy ending, but we can’t find the wisdom we crave by taking shortcuts. The only way out is through.