I got cancer… and fat! By Steve Safran

 

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…

Neuropathy.

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.

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Editor’s note:

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.

 

Stabbing Myself in the Back… by Steve Safran

I lied.

I said I wasn’t going to write about cancer anymore, but the after-effects have become overwhelming and it’s time to share a little more.

So here it is. My back catches on fire.

Ok, I mean that figuratively, because this “burning back” feeling has a name: neuropathy Neuropathy is common in chemo patients– about one in three get it. Think of it as pins and needles, only the pins are sticking you from the inside and the needles are hot enough to push through steel.

It comes in attacks, and there’s generally no way to know when. I have a few indicators: I’m more prone to neuropathy when I’m hot. Even having hot soup can bring on an attack. I get more attacks when I’m tired. I get it if I’ve been walking. So as long as I don’t move or go to sleep, I’m fine.

Now, I’ve had all sorts of side- and after-effects from chemotherapy and I’m happy to make the trade in exchange for the not-having-cancer bit. However, I’m finding the nerve damage to make for a terrible Catch-22.

Some background: During treatment, cancer docs want you to keep eating. This is to keep the nausea at bay. Also, nearly every local loved one is delivering casseroles, soups, baked goods, and lasagnas. Unfortunately, eating is the last thing you want to do during and after chemo. But they recommend 2,000 – 3,000 daily calories and avoiding an empty stomach. You know that lightheaded, skipped lunch, nauseous feeling when you’ve slogged through a busy day on coffee alone? Imagine that times chemo.

But they say you need to eat. And you can eat anything. Really? 3,000 calories of Ben and Jerry’s? OK, you’re the doctor. So I ate. I ate without joy. I ate in bed. Not good.

Truth: I’m heavy. I’m 5’7” and weigh 230 lbs. Not quite Homer Simpson, but more than the standard, doughy “Dad Bod.” My ideal weight is 150-175 lbs. When I found out I had cancer, I weighed 226 lbs. When I was finally declared cured, I weighed… 227 lbs.

I put on weight while I had cancer.

If I can’t lose weight on cancer, what chance does Weight Watchers have?

So now, with “remission” and NED (no evidence of disease) notations in my medical chart, it’s time to get back into shape. Only– the neuropathy. My energy is low. The cure? Exercise. The bad cholesterol is too high, the good one is too low. The way to reverse that? Exercise. My blood sugar needs to come down. The remedy? You get it.

Except as soon as I start moving, my back, legs, and shoulders start a conflagration suitable for a Fourth of July bonfire. Get your marshmallows on your sticks, kids. Stevie’s on the treadmill.

Oh– did I mention what else helps neuropathy? Exercise.

I’m taking a fibromyalgia medicine they give those poor folks who are in a constant, unrelenting nerve pain that I cannot imagine. I get bouts of the fire needle attacks, but they go away. To feel like this all the time? Insane. I’d rather vote Trump.

I’m going to try swimming: cooler water, less pressure on the joints, less overheating. Maybe it will do some good. My Body Mass Index indicates I’m certainly buoyant enough.

The list of things that happen after cancer is getting long and, unfortunately, interesting. It may be time for a book. Working title: “Cancer: So, You Think The Disease Was Bad…”

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