When I was first told I should have chemotherapy I did not think of myself as “needing” it. Rather, I viewed chemotherapy as preventative medicine. I had Stage I cancer which means there was no cancer in my lymph nodes or other parts of my body. So there was no need for chemotherapy to kill cancer or put me into remission. Once I’d had my surgery I was cancer free.
In many ways this is true. I think of my chemotherapy treatments as destroying any “free radicals” just in case the tests missed something and a cancer cell had escaped into my system undetected. But there was more to it than that. Yes, chemotherapy is a treatment to fight systemic cancer and works to put patients into remission. It is also the only known treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. There is no other treatment available (yet) that works to keep the cancer from recurring. Breast cancers that are hormone positive are treated with hormone blockers. Breast cancer that is Her2 positive is treated with Herceptin – a drug that specifically targets the protein that the cancer cell feeds on.
Now that I know more about triple-negative breast cancer I understand the need for chemotherapy. And I remain eternally grateful that I was diagnosed at Stage I. However, the effects of chemotherapy remain with me. I am fortunate enough to have received a newer treatment cocktail with fewer long-term side effects. And I only needed four rounds of the poison.
People are aware of the side effects of chemotherapy. The most obvious one is hair loss. There is also nausea, changes in appetite, water retention, and chemo brain. Maybe you’ve heard of chemo brain. Symptoms of chemo brain include memory loss, trouble paying attention, trouble finding the right word, difficulty with new learning, and difficulty managing daily activities. According to CancerCare® patients “often notice these problems during chemotherapy treatment. Within one year of treatment, many people find these difficulties greatly improved or no longer exist. However, for some people, chemo brain can continue for years following completion of treatment.” Of course, many of these symptoms are synonymous with aging.
When I was undergoing chemotherapy the most striking impairment was my inability to button buttons. I remember standing in my bedroom, dressing for work and having difficulty buttoning my blouse. I felt like I was five years old and learning all over again. I slowly and methodically made myself think and act through the process. Eventually I reached a point during treatment that I gave up trying. I simply asked my husband to button my blouse for me. He never said a word.
Symptoms lasting more than a year after treatment are something that I call an after-effect. I’m not a doctor. I am not medically trained, and I’ve never discussed this directly with any of my doctors. But I am aware of the occasional after-effect that was never there before chemotherapy. While I have surgery scars that are a daily reminder, I can once again button my blouse in the morning without thinking. My hair is long again. The swollen ankles are rare. I still have “trouble finding the right word” and that started at age 43 with chemotherapy. In my case, this particular after-effect is mild and I am fortunate enough to live and work in an environment that has allowed me to learn to compensate. I guess I’m one of those people who “find these difficulties greatly improved,” and in most cases they no longer exist.
However, if you are a cancer survivor and are continuing to experience the after-effects of chemotherapy, I would encourage you to talk with your doctor.