Two weeks after my final radiotherapy session, I finally understood what they meant about fatigue. It didn’t kick in until at least a month after I started radiation, and it wasn’t until late last week that I began to feel a bit debilitated by it. Nevertheless, I knew it was a side effect of the radio when I started needing an afternoon nap after a solid eight hours’ sleep. (Eight hours soon became nine hours, nine hours became 10, and before I knew it, I was sleeping 12 hours and still feeling exhausted.)
It’s both a mental and a physical kind of tiredness, but it’s not a constant thing – it really comes and goes. I wake up feeling reasonably sprightly but by lunch time I’m ready for a few hours of shuteye and sometimes I’ll be back in bed by 9pm. Some days I feel fuzzy headed and can’t concentrate, other times it’s more of a physical tiredness, but more often that not, I’m just sleepy and don’t feel like doing much.
All this, I’m told, is totally normal. The peak of the side effects usually occurs about two weeks after the final treatment, which is round about now, and the cumulative tiredness from the chemo and radiotherapy is likely to last a few months.
It’s easy to feel frustrated by this. After all, I’ve had almost nine months of my life effectively taken away from me by cancer. I spent six of those months cooped up in my parents’ house, unable to go out and socialise or work. Now that I’m no longer bed-bound by chemo, I want to recover lost time: work, go out, have fun, travel, live a normal life. Unfortunately, however, I’m not quite yet free of the side effects of treatment and I’m going to have to hold onto my urge to run marathons for a little longer.
Last week I read a brilliant essay by Dr. Peter Harvey, consultant clinical psychologist at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, which completely captures this phase of treatment. It’s a long read, but I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how it really feels to step off the rollercoaster of cancer treatment and be left reeling, still dizzy-headed, wobbly and – quite frankly – wanting to vom from the ride.
One of the things Dr. Harvey mentions is the importance of allowing yourself time for recuperation, convalescence and rehabilitation after cancer treatment, and this doesn’t happen overnight. I took this week off work because I was struggling to concentrate through the tiredness, but I’m not going to suddenly revert to being a bouncing ball of energy (Was I ever?) as of Monday morning. It takes time.
Here are a couple of paragraphs that explain a little about the need for proper rest:
It is a widely held belief, often correct, that the treatment of an illness is meant to make you feel better. One of the many paradoxes of cancer is that, more often than not, the treatment makes you feel worse. This is not surprising – we cut and possibly mutilate, inject you with poisonous and powerful chemicals, subject you to dangerous rays all in the name of treatment. The aggressiveness and power of the treatments are a necessary response to the power of the disease, of course, but this very power takes its toll in other ways. […]
All too often I meet people who, for quite understandable reasons, want to get back to doing the things they used to before the diagnosis but find themselves falling at the first hurdle because they simply find the whole thing too much. In my view, however smoothly your treatment has progressed and however well you have tolerated the various indignities to which we subject you, some time simply to recharge and recover – to recuperate – is absolutely essential. This is the necessary foundation on which to build recovery. […] Take however long you feel you need. Recuperating is the very first step in a process of rebuilding.
And I think that’s just where I am right now: the recuperation stage. Sitting in my flat in Dublin, drinking milkless tea, listening to the rain outside and taking it one day at a time.