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  • Tanya Louise

Coping with Chemotherapy and Fatigue


I must admit that I'm not great about motivating myself when it comes to exercise.

I've started the couch to 5k running programme numerous times but get to week 3 and get a cold or it's too cold out, it's raining. it's too dark, too slippy.  There's always an excuse.  

I'd start off in the morning with great intentions of exercising in the evening, but when I finished work I was too tired. Multiply that tiredness by a hundred and you might get some way towards discovering the fatigue that goes with chemotherapy.   Certainly mine anyway.  I know it affects everyone differently, so they can never give you a comprehensive 'This is how you will feel' statement. Thankfully I didn't suffer from the sickness talked about by some, but extreme fatigue was very real.

Before starting chemotherapy you are given a talk about the side affects.  We are told that there might be days where we would struggle to lift a kettle.  Not me, I thought, I'm never going to be that weak.  The reality is, it's not a matter of not having the physical strength to lift a kettle, it's the having the energy to actually get out of bed and get yourself to the kitchen to even think about boiling the kettle.

I was generally fine on the day of chemo.  With the exception of a headache as the drugs went in, and a bit of nausea at the same time, I could usually come out and be OK.  I was given frozen ice pops to stop the chemical burning my gums - just at the moment the nausea hit.  I never want to taste an ice pop again.  The very thought of one make me want to heave. Just writing about them now makes me feel queasy.

You get to know a pattern with your treatment, I got to know when the fatigue would generally hit me.  Not on the day of treatment, I'd come out and go for a pub lunch to celebrate another one was over.  It made me smile once in a session when another patient asked if they could have a drop of alcohol with their Christmas dinner.  I'd been knocking back half a bottle of Prosecco after each chemo. Setting yourself small milestones and reward treats is a great help.  I had my chemotherapy on a Thursday.  The fatigue would generally start to hit me on the Monday, by the Tuesday I could barely lift my head from the pillow.  Every morning I had to take my temperature to check my body hadn't succumbed to infection. Thankfully it didn't, I remember one day feeling particularly weak. Slipping away peacefully seemed an easier option than the thought of having to get up and move from my bed.

The cure the hospital gives for this fatigue? No medication, purely exercise  - the very last thing you feel like doing.  The consultant admitted it sounded mad but a gentle walk in the fresh air can do you the world of good.  It helps if you have an understanding family that can drive you somewhere nice, where no body knows you, so you're not feeling self-conscious, even for just a few minutes.  It clears the mind and makes you feel more human - a reminder that life can go on, there is a world out there and to keep fighting.  One of the other risks of course is DVT, particularly after surgery.  After my first bout of extreme fatigue, a nurse, in no uncertain terms scolded me for admitting my immobility during the that time.

I came to know that the bouts would start on the Monday and ease about Thursday.  I knew that every cycle, I would be wiped out for at least three days, after which the tiredness would start to ease - just in time for the next round of blood tests to see if my body could take the next hit of chemo to kick start the whole depressing cycle again.

Each time I would tell myself that next time I would get in a box set and chill for a few days. It never worked.  I felt I was wasting precious time.  I was alive and the time could be used to try and make a better life for myself when I was through this hell.

The fatigue doesn't just disappear when the treatment ends.  Don't be fooled.  If you're reading this and thinking it will, I don't want to be negative, but it takes time.  Even now as I write this, 10 months after finishing chemo, my energy levels are not what they were before, don't get me wrong, it's nothing like when I was on the treatment, but mornings are not my strong point and I still seem to get tired very easily.  Do I stress about it?  No, I try not to.  Listen to your body.  If you need rest, rest. It's hard for family and friends to understand.  That's the thing with Cancer.  People seem to think that once you've finished the treatment, that's it, you're over it and you can pick up where you left off.  It's nothing like that, both mentally and physically. but each day you get a little stronger.

Be kind to yourself. Stop and remember that your body has taken a battering.  During treatment I  remember telling a nurse my frustration at not having the energy to do things.  Her response was simple, write a list.  If you write 8 things, expect to tick off 2 or 3 at the very most.  I still write lists now.  I have a big note book which is like a paper version of my brain (you wouldn't want to see what goes on in either) as time goes on, there are more ticks.

So do I exercise more?  I'm ashamed to say I've not got back into it the way I was before diagnosis.  Exercise is important for anyone who has had Cancer, and I'll talk about that in another post, but for now....it's on my list

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