Symptoms of having cancer and side effects of taking chemo can be so unpredictable and transitory and unexceptional that I find myself constantly wondering: Is this something?
I feel like a hypochondriac sometimes. But with a time bomb ticking inside me, and doctors that want to know every single bodily sensation, and a mother that still asks me how i’m feeling (it’s OK, mom–I know, you’re a mother), and side effects written all over my chemo bottles, and the “usual” things that people with cancer feel floating around the general discourse… I have to keep tabs. It’s just hard to tell: Is this something i’m imagining just because I know it could happen? Or, perhaps more importantly: Whether or not it’s real, does it matter?
When I was first starting to feel the symptoms that triggered my cancer diagnosis, they were so unexceptional that they could have been anything. I went to the doctor, but I didn’t really push the matter when my symptoms weren’t resolved with the pills I was prescribed. I could live with them. They were so minor and so ordinary that they didn’t seem like something. When the doctor who ended up diagnosing me said, at my second appointment with her, “I don’t think this is cancer, by the way.” I said to myself, “Cancer? What do you mean, cancer? Obviously this is isn’t cancer. I’m 25!”
Now that I’ve seen what unexceptional symptoms can be, I am hyper-vigilant. Especially because my oncologist said, “It’s usually the patient–not a PET-CT–that detects when the cancer is growing again or whether it has spread.” I’ve been tired–is this the fatigue that cancer patients so often complain about? I’m nauseous–or maybe i’m just hungry. I’m not hungry–could that be the chemo or is it my stomach being obstructed? But this is all just in my head. My oncologist always encourages me to call, but if I called every time I thought I felt something, I would be calling almost everyday. And I would be doing all these extra tests and appointments which take time, and cost money, and are usually annoying. So I end up doing triage on myself, but triage that is informed by very little knowledge or experience. I have reason, but: What do I know? My oncologist always asks if my feet are peeling because it’s a side effect of my chemo. My feet peel, but so minorly that it almost doesn’t seem worth mentioning. And it certainly doesn’t warrant a call. Except, he always says: “Remember: we only get upset at patients who don’t call.”
I’ve called three times that I can remember. Once, at the very beginning, at the nudging of one of my therapists, when I was throwing up every half-hour while fasting for a scan. Another time, the morning after I was sent to the hospital for a procedure where the doctor didn’t end up doing what I was sent there to have done. And this summer, when I was feeling excessively thirsty, I thought, from my chemo. I ended up just being sick, and not because my white blood cells were too low.
I have called so infrequently that now when I do, I think my oncologist must think whatever i’m calling about is a big deal. So I have to make sure I think it might be a big deal before I call. And calling, then, becomes me admitting to myself that something might be amiss. It’s me acknowledging and opening myself up to the worry that nags at me even when there’s nothing specific to worry about. It’s me saying, things are good now but they might get worse. It’s me saying: This isn’t my imagination. This is something.
But what do I know?