Everyone has been tired more than a time or two, so when cancer patients talk about fatigue caused from treatment, people might think they can empathize. But this kind of fatigue is unlike anything else.
The lethargy I experienced with treatment took me by surprise, despite prior warning. It happened in streaks at first but then swiftly became my most faithful companion who refused to leave my side.
Chemo fatigue introduced itself quickly and was concurrent with extreme physical weakness. Once the steroids wore off a day or two after the infusion, all I wanted or seemed to be able to do was sleep for days. About the time I started to feel like I was getting some energy back, I was due for my next cycle and it would begin all over again. At each appointment I was asked to rate my fatigue from a 1, being the least tired, to a 10, being the most tired. Over the course of those four and a half months, the number steadily climbed to a solid 10 like mercury rising in a thermometer.
Every three weeks, the consecutive round of chemo robbed me of more strength, only leaving behind greater exhaustion and further altering daily life. Naps were imperative and unavoidable, but never provided the same refreshed feeling they’d given before treatment. Walking up the three flights of stairs to our apartment, my body would require respite at each landing. Even attempting the tiniest of tasks, like brushing my teeth or loading the dishwasher, my body refused to support me and I’d have to sit down. A five minute shower required 15 minutes of lying in bed after to recover. Then at its worst, showering transformed to sitting under the running water, and finally just bathing.
Eventually, even driving became a challenge and I’d have to rely on others to bring me to and from appointments. I had never experienced weakness like this before, and it was frustrating and frightening to lose my independence and strength. It made me feel like I was living in someone else’s body. I wondered if I’d ever feel young, strong, energized, or even just normal, again.
I started to feel somewhat sturdier, but by no means normal, after recovering from chemo and surgery and before I returned back to work teaching second semester. However, once I began radiation the following week, the weariness not only returned, but was intensified by the adjustment back to normal life on top of treatment. Most afternoons I came home from work and went straight to bed, napped until my husband came home, ate, then got ready for bed and slept until morning. My normal bedtime became 7 o’clock and despite how much sleep I got, I would wake up in the morning to my alarm clock, still feeling drained.
Cancer treatment-induced fatigue is a silent scream from your body to stop. It’s like walking in lead shoes. In quick sand. Carrying an elephant on your shoulders. Truly, it feels like living in a different world, a slow motion world, watching everyone else in a normal world, living life at normal speed and it’s impossible to keep up. I wanted to live in the normal world, but there was no way to get there.
Considering how chemotherapy and radiation kill off healthy cells along with the cancerous ones and then leave the body with the hefty task of producing new cells to their place, it’s not surprising that sleep is wanted and needed for the body to restore itself back to a healthy, non-cancerous residence. As my father-in-law has said many times, “It’s a shame they have to wreck you to fix you.”
Cancer treatment leaves a patient with only so much gas in the tank, so to speak, and I had to make sure I conserved enough to get me through the treatment and across the finish line, or it seemed like I might not get there at all. At two of my six cycles, chemo was delayed. The first time it was only by a day, but the next time my counts were so low and I was so weak that I needed a blood transfusion and chemo was pushed back a week. Anyone who has been through chemo understands the devastation of delaying any of the scheduled treatments. When there is an end date in sight and that date keeps crawling further and further away on the calendar, it feels like life will never get back to normal and you’ll never feel well again.
Not only is fatigue physical, but it has emotional effects as well. It became depressing when my daily objectives revolved around medical appointments, when I felt like I was at Roger Maris Cancer Center just as often as I was home, and when I simply had little to no energy left for anything fun. I felt like I never saw my husband and that the only time my husband saw me, I was sleeping. Visiting with friends or family who were so sweet to come check in on me left me feeling drained. I couldn’t be the wife, daughter, sister, or friend that I used to be and wanted to be, and that was frustrating.
All of this begins to take its toll. It is tiresome to not only be tired all the time, but to just barely have the energy to go only to appointments and most certainly not have any more left for anything or anyone else. I can’t count how many times throughout my treatment I have said, “I’m so sick of this,” or “I can’t do this anymore.”
The good news is, one month after completing radiation, not only has my skin healed up, but slowly and quietly, I am starting to feel my stamina returning. Feeling mostly like myself again and having more energy is actually appearing to be a real likelihood in my future, which might be the best feeling of all. In the thick of it, I couldn’t see that anything would ever feel normal again. That I would feel normal again. And honestly, I think that’s all that anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer really wants.