Keeping Track, Necessary Evil

Since I began chemotherapy, I’ve been maintaining a casual log of my symptoms. It’s one of those things that I will generally spare my readers, not only because it is occasionally gross, but because it really isn’t relevant. There are so many potential little side-effects, ranging from the innocuous to the downright ludicrous and back to the mildly irritable that one person’s experience will never directly relate to another’s. Certainly, there are the big ugly days that speckle themselves in there, but my log focuses on the annoyances.

Here’s why: it is a reminder of how little these things actually matter in the big picture. It also gives me a touchstone for meetings with my oncologist. We need something to talk about, after all, and then I need some reason to feel like an idiot for bitching about the balls of my feet feeling puffy or my nose being dry. Because, at the end of the day, it’s actually worse to have the flu. And I mean that, in a very practical sense, because I often compare my symptoms to being on the verge of getting the stomach flu. It can be unpleasant, but it could be much more unpleasant. Now, I will say this was not always the case. The first three months arguably had weeks peppered in that were worse than the flu I suffered through as a kid. But after my first six rounds of hardcore chemo, the veil of doom was lifted and I entered Walk in the Park Land.

Okay, Walk in the Park Land may not be an entirely accurate description, but by comparison that is how maintenance therapy initially felt. 

Over more than a year on a single drug, I have gotten used to the side-effects and symptoms of my chemotherapy treatments in a highly manageable way. Long gone are the incessant nosebleeds that led to an ENT questioning whether I had a cocaine habit when I sought help for a hole that had developed in my septum. For my past few cycles, I have barely even suffered the typical digestive issues that normally plagued me. And the complaints I had about everything tasting bitter for a few days were relegated to an aside this past week as I mentioned how nice it was that only one meal had really been affected.

One interesting thing is that for the first year, I seemed impervious to the common cold. But in the past six or eight months, not only have I caught virtually every cold my daughter has brought home from school or camp, but I have had to go onto antibiotics to deal with the resulting pneumonia. Fortunately the pneumonia was something of an outlier, but now one of the bigger side effects of my chemotherapy is the worry about what happens when I catch a cold. They linger longer, I’m sure I look like hell and they have a tendency now to make me cough a lot, which can be startling when you are tuned into the whole lung cancer thing. And if something even more nefarious is making the rounds, so much the worse for the paranoia factor; I am deeply aware of my compromised immune system, and as such I am constantly checking myself over and assessing my physical state.

That can be overwhelming.

And it is when my log of side effects and symptoms comes in handy. I can check and see that, yes, these little things are typical for me. Yes, I tend to get a drippy nose and usually a cough on days four and five. Sometimes it is hard to tell where my usual side effects end and an actual cold begins, or when I should start panicking because of a fever or whether the shakiness I feel is indicative of a bacterial infection or some new virus or what if…

Then it is good to have a sense of “normal” to judge by. I can take a breath and remind myself that things are within the bounds of reason. I can be glad that I kept track of all those little things for so long. And I can marvel at how nice it is that this time my feet didn’t swell up nearly so much, or how great it is that I haven’t been constipated, or what a treat that the neuropathy went away for now.

While the side effects continue, and they are always a touch unpredictable, keeping track of them has allowed me to be able to keep the worst of them, the paranoia and worry, under control. I also get to keep perspective, which is invaluable. So as much as I would love to have left my list of annoyances behind, sometimes it pays to keep it handy. Besides, like I said earlier, I’ll need something to talk with my oncologist about when I see him again in a couple weeks. It is always good to hear him say “well, if that’s all you’ve got to complain about…” And then he’ll keep me on the same track, ready for another round.

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