The Chemo Emo and her Cloud

Pathetic Fallacy in real life. (So maybe “pathetic reality?”) This cloud appeared as I was battling a terrible dark, low mood. I know I don’t look sad in this picture. I was trying really hard to be “normal.”

On our first summer weekend at the lake, I set out to do what I always do – take solace in the water. Whether it’s playing mermaids with my daughter, water-skiing, swimming, or paddling a canoe, my favourite thing in the world is to be buoyed forth, coasting weightlessly on endless peaks and troughs.

After some time chatting with neighbours on the beach, I pushed my canoe into the water and waded in. There was a sudden rush of fire up my legs and I ran screaming out of the surf, pushing the boat away from me in my efforts to escape the biting pain.

Realization washed over me. Because of the oxaliplatin in my chemo regime, I haven’t been able to tolerate anything cool for weeks. I can’t drink cold water or even cut up carrots without wearing gloves. How did I think I would be able to frolic in the lake? I stormed up the hill to our cabin in my flip-flops. I smacked trees and threw rocks in anger as the dog trailed behind me. I started to cry but had to stop as chemo-induced starbursts exploded behind my eyes. On the deck I composed myself and sent my youngest son down to rescue the canoe, which was floating off toward the beach at the base of our cove.

Like one of my wonderful chemo nurses said, “If you take a turkey from the freezer with no gloves, you’ll break a toe!”

When Asher came along I told him about the water. “I can’t even go for a paddle,” I explained, distraught. He looked at me and exclaimed, “Because if you fall in, your whole body might go into a spasm…” I finished his sentence, “And then I might drown!” Asher raised his arms and shook them about and flailed his legs up and down and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s one summer, Janine. Next year you’ll be back at it.” He was right, but I still stuck my tongue out at him sneakily as he gave me a hug.

Chemo can make one feel cranky and sad. Steroids and other medications are prescribed to ease the side effects for the first 3 to 5 days of your chemo cycle, but these steroids and the processing of the chemo drugs, and maybe my own emotional reaction to the whole process, can send me into a very dark place. My cancer care team recommended I pare down the amount of steroids I take, and that has helped, but I still have bad days. I’ve become friends with a number of people who have been down the cancer path, and we have discussed this darkness. One of my friends referred to this feeling as the “chemo emos.” I thought this was the perfect name. Physically, chemotherapy can make one feel sick, fatigued, cognitively weak and, in the case of my particular regime, can set off the nerves and muscles in bizarre ways. But the mental and emotional grind of a series of chemo cycles can be even tougher to endure.

How does one endure? One method is distraction. As Tolstoy observed of the pitiful, adulterous Oblonsky in Anna Karenina:

He could find no answer, except life’s usual answer to the most complex and insoluble questions. That answer is: live in the needs of the day, that is, find forgetfulness.

It is relatively easy for me to find forgetfulness when folding the laundry, doing things with the kids, or reading a book. I get up everyday and I stay busy. Even on the days I feel the worst, I actively engage in things. I may not have the stamina to run 5 km or attend large social events, but I can always find something to do.

I’m heading into my 5th round of chemo tomorrow, and I’ve come to respect my mood swings. I am fortunate that I get 4 or 5 really good days each time before I go back for my next infusion. And the last number of days have been fantastic – I have been energetic and happy. Rediscovering my yoga practice this week has helped immensely, and as I come close to the halfway mark of my course of chemotherapy I am starting to visualize my “after.”

I don’t want to get overconfident or to tempt fate, but in the past few days I have started to feel like I really do have this in the bag. I have not developed an infection or illness yet, my immunity has not dipped into the danger zone, and my side effects continue to subside in time for my next round of treatment, which means I am tolerating things well. Each day I run through all of these positives in my mind.

When I have a hard time focusing on the positives and the darkness sets in, however, I simply sit with it. In the style of Kristin Neff, I use a self-compassion technique.

I place my hand on my heart and think, “I am having a really hard time right now,” and I breathe for a few minutes. And then I think,”What do I need to do right now to feel better?” Sometimes the littlest thing makes me feel better. A cup of tea. Sitting in the sunshine. A walk. A hug. A chat. Reading. Or, more recently, some yoga.

Yoga on the dock with my downward dog.

Writing this post has been a two-week long struggle for me. I did not want to seem negative or whiny. But I needed to highlight the importance of maintaining one’s mental health during cancer treatment. If we focus only on the physical and ignore our moods, our sadness, our anger, our thoughts and emotions, our bodies will still be stressed.

Healing requires a holistic approach. Mind, body and spirit.

Talking to a professional, yoga and nature walks, healthy food and family meals, mindfulness, visualization, self-compassion and a little old-fashioned Tolstoy-type “finding forgetfulness” (or task-engagement) are some things that help me support physical, mental and emotional health on a daily basis.

I might not be riding the waves this summer, but I am learning to manage these peaks and troughs.

We all go through tough times. See a counsellor or a psychologist if you need to. Talk to someone, develop strategies that work for you, and find a little something to look forward to each day.

Relaxing in the garden with some fruit tea and a book can make the infusion process a little more tolerable.

23 thoughts on “The Chemo Emo and her Cloud

  1. Omg I’ve been through breast cancer, and most recently thyroid cancer. Never in my life could I express myself as well as you do. I love your blog. Wish you well.
    Carol Talbot

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    1. Thank you so much, Carol! You’ve been through so much. I hope you are coping well, and thank you for sharing. I’m so glad you are enjoying my blog. I bet we could have many great chats over shared experiences 🙂

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  2. So glad you were able to capture in writing the feelings and experiences you related in our phone call earlier today. Your stamina – even on the worst days and in the face of the darkness of depression and discomfort – are truly an inspiration. We all have bad days, but if we can look forward to better days, as you are doing, it makes the time go so much more quickly. Approaching the half-way point I have just four words for you (shamelessly lifted from that famous poster:) “Hang in there, baby!”

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    1. Our phone call spurred me to go and finish my blog post! So thank you! I realized people were asking and waiting to see how things were going and the blog is a great way for an update for everyone.
      I have a nice visual of me hanging from a tree eating a banana with “Hang in There, baby!” highlighting my predicament in 1980’s style neon bubble letters.
      Thank you for making me laugh out loud today as I sit getting my infusion!

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  3. My dear new friend Janine—

    You certainly knew what you were doing (prescient?) when you titled your blog “A Year of Weather.” I am grateful to you for your unflinching honesty in describing this ordeal, but it’s remarkable how quickly you rebound.Negative? Whiny? I’m not sure how many of us wouldn’t fall into those abysses and linger there, but you certainly don’t waste the time doing that.

    I’m sure you’re right that you have this in the bag. I’m also sure you’re helping many people with your combined inspiring and sensible suggestions.

    One more thing: I read a fair number of blog posts, but one that aptly quotes Tolstoy? Well, that’s a first!

    All good wishes,

    Annie

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    1. Hi Annie!

      I promise I cannot quote Tolstoy off-the-cuff, but I’ve been reading a lot lately and Anna Karenina has always been on my wish list. One good thing about this on-going treatment is I’ve got lots of time for books!

      My hope is definitely that this will help people. I think of my confused, devastated self 5 months ago upon receiving this diagnosis and my subsequent internet searches for blogs and books written by people who had been through the same. Hopefully I am adding a good resource to the pile.

      I love hearing from you and your support means so much to me.

      Beast wishes for a lovely week for you,
      Janine

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  4. You are a fighter for the better in everyone, even yourself. Remember that you do have this in this in the bag! I am praying for you, Asher and your family. Next summer you will be in the water, canoeing at the lake.😘❤️😘

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  5. Another beautifully and on point piece Janine! I can’t believe we still haven’t met but I do look forward to that day.💜 As I read this most recent piece one word kept coming to mind… vulnerability. You’ve probably already read many or all of Brené Brown’s books or listened to her TED talk but it’s what kept coming to mind as I read your honest account of your feelings through this journey. Here’s a link that I was led to after finding her work. You definitely are a prime example of her teachings and I think it’s what will get you through the remainder of your journey! You do ‘ have this’!
    https://www.goalcast.com/2018/06/18/5-lessons-brene-brown-the-power-of-vulnerability/

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    1. Melanie, I look forward to meeting you in person as well!! It is so funny you mentioned Brene Brown. I’ve been reading her books and following her for a few years now. I watched Her most recent Netflix special at a time when I was debating turning parts of my private journal into a blog, and I thought, “I’m going to dare to be vulnerable!” I love her work on empathy. As a counsellor I have been a student of hers ever since I first heard of her!!! So interesting that you drew that comparison today 💖

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      1. She has been an inspiration of mine as well and now you’re on that list too!! You’re in good company💜 side note… did you read Natalie Finlays book? Soul steps …..and follow the page? Natalie’s talks are good for the soul! Lots of encouragment there!

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  6. So happy you’re at the halfway point. Your blog is illuminating and beautifully written. Love the pictures, too. You are a profile in courage and a model of how to get through a difficult, scary, ordeal. I eagerly look forward to your next blog!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your lovely comments ❤️! I’m not always courageous, but sharing these experiences with others has given me more support than I ever could have hoped!!

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