The swing of week 1 – totally wasted, week 2 – slow recovery and week 3 – functioning more or less, went on for six months!
What the doctor’s pamphlets didn’t say was that my recovery after the treatment would never reach my previous levels of energy. I would recover physically but never to the extent of how I felt prior to the previous treatment. The side effects would increase with time as the drugs poisoning my body had cumulative effects. Consequently, slowly but imperceptibly, I grew weaker, more fatigued, and more sluggish.
Since the chemotherapy also hits the immune system, usually a patient is advised to avoid social gatherings for fear of infection with a cold or flu. I was advised that if I woke up with a fever I would need to go immediately to the emergency, as I had no immune system left to fight infection. Hence my social life went downhill, and I communicated with friends only by phone. This created a sense of social isolation, as everyone went on with their lives and I was sitting home trying to recover from the previous session before going to the dreaded next one.
What the doctor’s pamphlet also didn’t mention was that the physical state would be reflected by my mental state. At the time I didn’t realize but I was slowly succumbing to depression. The fatigue took away any joy in life. I was watching comedies but found it difficult to find something that would make me laugh. So I bought a series of Victor Borge DVDs – I always loved music comedians, and he was the only one who could make me forget my ordeal.
Hair loss makes it even more difficult for some women. Losing what is regarded as “the very essence of womanhood” can diminish feelings of self-worth as a partner. Some women are embarrassed, some angry, some feel ashamed, and some even feel naked without hair. Fortunately for me, I actually enjoyed being bald.
Living with the perspective of the next treatment coming up, I hit a low a couple of times. My mental state was even worse when I realized towards the second part of treatment, that I was unable to hold my focus long enough to read an article or a book. I was growing more and more passive. I thought, “If this is what my life will be, then I would rather check out.”
What kept me going was the love that surrounded me. One friend kept mailing me a new set of outrageously long earrings and matching lipstick before each chemo session so that I could wear it for my next session. She claimed that I needed to look my best in the room full of sick and bald people. I still have some of these earrings as a reminder of the love that would lift me in difficult times.
Other friends divided each day of the week between them and I would get a phone call every day asking if I needed shopping done or if they could bring lunch/dinner they had just made for me. These expressions of care and love would lift me in my despair. Often, I would also get a knowing look from someone in the elevator or a store lineup and be asked how long I still had to go in my treatment. We would then have a nice conversation, which would leave me feeling somewhat lifted. “I am not alone,” and “I am special.”
In these times, yoga therapy has a very limited possibility of helping. The overwhelming fatigue and depression make it difficult for patients to practice any form of yoga on their own. It is difficult enough to get up in the morning, let alone maintain a discipline.
One-on-one classes can be beneficial but would have to be geared to the fluctuating energy levels of the patient. The practices would likely be limited to non-physical techniques like pranayama, chanting, and perhaps meditation. I find that for most of the patients, maintaining contact with their body is simply too painful, and by the end of the chemotherapy they are completely disconnected from the neck down. So, simple instructions for slow and deep breathing could be very helpful.