Picture the fictitious cancer patient. Skinny. Gaunt. Wasted muscle clinging to pencil thin bones. Weak. They have lost a ton of weight from the combination of no appetite coupled with vomiting up what they have managed to get down. It’s the World’s Worst Diet. Everyone loses weight on it.
This wasn’t me.
I finished chemotherapy a year ago weighing one pound more than when I started. Today, I weigh 25 pounds more.
What the fuck?
So here’s the nasty trick chemo played on me. The treatment and never-ending recovery has added a lot of weight, and it continues. And, mind you, I take ownership for much of this. I did not go into treatment nice and svelte. Britt has called me “…a teddy bear… a grumpy Jewish teddy bear,” and you don’t get that moniker weighing 145 lbs.
The oncologists suggested eating 2000-3000 calories a day during the course of my chemotherapy regimen. They didn’t tell me how to pack in a 4th or 5th meal a day, but insisted I needed extra calories to fight cancer and stave off nausea. When they didn’t specify any specific source for these calories I thought, “Awesome! Ice cream at every meal!”
Except, I found out, eating was a horror. You know how you feel at 3pm if you’ve skipped lunch? Imagine that but with a sour stomach, achy bones, bitter fatigue, and a sandpaper tongue. I had nightmares where I actually screamed, “I can’t eat again!”
So there I was, lying in bed, immobile, eating 3,000 calories a day. It’s amazing I only put on one pound. Chemotherapy treatment ended. Eating habits returned to normal. Bald and exhausted, it was now time to start an exercise regimen. But my body had other plans…
For the uninitiated, neuropathy is extreme nerve pain. Imagine “pins and needles,” except the pins are on fire and the needles are sticking you a thousand times a second, all over, from the inside. Neuropathy is a common, though under-discussed side effect of chemo. About one in three of us get it. For me, it is exacerbated by heat. I keep my apartment at a temperature approaching the crisper drawer.
So here I am, post-treatment with one no-advancement-of-disease scan under my over-stretched belt, actually wanting to move. I want to return to some sort of daily routine that involves logging steps outside the apartment. But doing so activates my neuropathy. The pain is awful in a way that awful is just not nearly strong enough a word. I’ve tried meds. I’ve been to acupuncture. (A funny irony. The cure for Hell’s “pins and needles” is more pins.) These treatments stave off an attack temporarily, but a short sprint to catch the cab or extra flight of stairs is enough to warm my body for another attack.
All of which means I’m terribly out of shape, gaining weight, and damn near immobile at times. Helplessness settles in: if I can’t lose weight getting cancer, what chance does Weight Watchers stand?
I can eat less, or better, I suppose. Who couldn’t? I’m determined to fight through the pain. I’m starting physical therapy with people who specialize in neuropathy. I take cold showers after exercising (which helps) and text Britt that this sucks (also helpful).
I’ve written before about how when cancer treatment ends, you’re really only smack in the middle of it. “If you think cancer’s bad, wait until you’re cured,” I’ve noted. The PTSD. The side-effects. The constant follow-up appointments. The time spent in giant scanning tubes and machines that make loud noises. The four days after each scan wondering “Has it come back?” The cancer goes away, but the “cancer patient” remains.
Recovery for me still includes lasting effects. It also, unfortunately, includes an occasional jokey barb about my increasing teddy bearish-ness. Prior to cancer, those comments might not have weighed as heavily on me as these extra pounds. But I got cancer and got fat. Beat the first. Working on the second. Stay tuned.
I will continue to remind Steve that a recent study of breast cancer patients found an average 11-pound weight gain for women who had chemo versus those who did not. The toll these poisons take on our metabolism is still undefined, but certainly reported anecdotally and with great humor and frustration in thousands of breast cancer blogs. Hang with us, Stevie. We think you’re doing great.