Posted by: jeanne | October 19, 2011

fatigue after cancer

this is the transcript of a conversation i had with a friend about the absolute fatigue you can feel after treatment.  this lasts long after the treatment ends, and it feels like you’ll never have any energy again.  but it does come back.  others will notice before you do.
You may remember [name] (age 73) got cancer last easter.  She had the lump removed, had radiotherapy, and has a very good prognosis, partly due to her age and also had no spread into the lymph nodes.  However, she is now totally exhausted almost all the time and, since she is one of those skinny, tiny, busy women, she is finding it very difficult to cope.  I would say she is dealing with depression for the first time in her life.  How does she compare to your reactions after surgery and after?  Did you have this problem and, if so, how did you deal with it?

yes, fatigue is a big problem.  mine lasted more than a year, where i had to drag myself around the block and stop twice.

there’s nothing for it except to baby yourself and continue.  the continuing is the important part, but also the babying, because you need coddling when you’re recovering from medical shit and also dealing with death.

depression is totally normal, and a necessary process right now.  when you’re going thru something like this, you don’t have the spirit to deal with anything that’s not muted.  distractions are irritating.  and there’s so much to think about and accomplish, even while your perspective on everything is going to shit.

the will to live will out (or not) and the energy will come back, but slowly.  it’s a patience thing.

i hope this helps, feel free to come back for more.

Thanks for this.  I have passed it on to her along with a couple of other bits and pieces I found on the internet.  I often think the recovery part of illness is the hardest, when your body needs all that mixture of effort and cosseting to regain its strength.

fall  is here in earnest.  we just had a tropical storm bring a bunch of the leaves down, and now all that’s left are the pecans and acorns.  it’s a bumper crop this year, and the berries are heavy on the bushes, so i’m figuing a very hard winter here, and am  preparing for that ice storm to take the power out for three days.

i feel for your friend.  her age makes her fragile to be recovering from surgery and chemo, but if she takes it one day at a time and learns to find something to feel joy over, then whatever remains of her life will be pleasant and bring happiness. that’s the key to depression, at least mine.  keep moving, and find something no matter how small to be happy about.  and even when i only gave myself a couple of years to live, that attitude made it bearable, even wondrous to  be alive.  and slowly as my energy came back, the attitude laid the groundwork for my current vibrancy and joy.

when jim’s wife died, he threw himself into fixing up the other house and preparing to sell the one they were in.  they’d been planning to move right before she got sick, so he stuck to that, and spent all his depression-energy on laying the groundwork for the next phase in his life.  it was a very productive way to handle it, and it brought him a side benefit – me.

i said ‘whatever remains of her life’ but that doesn’t mean as bad as it sounds.  having cancer, you accept that your life has an end, and if you have cancer long enough, you find that it hasn’t ended yet and you’ve got to get on with it.  we all die, but people who haven’t faced death haven’t really lived.  that’s what a death sentence gives you, a better perspective.

depression, jim always reminds me, is masked anger.  you swallow the anger because you can’t direct it, and it brings you down.  she’s not suffering from depression per se, but fatigue, which is different.  if she can live with the fatigue, and baby herself, it will pass.  depression is a side effect, and can kill you.  so she’s got to be careful not to let it go there.  that’s why treating yourself like a baby, like your demented little sister, is so helpful.  because you don’t get depressed when someone else is having trouble; you care more and go slower and be more gentle.  and that’s what you need.  especially if you don’t have someone who will do it for you.

another process involved in having cancer is a thorough review of your life.  the situations you’ve lived with, the people you’ve put up with, the indignities you’ve suffered.  while you’re healthy and everything is fine, it seems like you can put up with these little slings and arrows.  but once you get cancer, you realize that these indignities are at the root of what’s making you sick, and you learn to be more ruthless with your life.  you start to hang up on people who just want to harangue you over the phone.  you don’t let people impose on you as much.  you get angry when someone asks you to endure something.  you start speaking your mind.  you start standing up for yourself.  and why not?  you’ll be dead soon, why should you put up with all this nonsense when it just drains the little energy you have?

in the years after i got cancer, i jettisoned a few false friends, stopped doing work for other people, learned to terminate conversations when i started feeling bad about them, and learned to tell my mother exactly what i was thinking about what she’d just said.

it improved my life immeasurably.  i was no longer a victim, i was much more in control of my emotions and my responses, and didn’t have to get all tied up inside about things that really don’t matter when you’re going to die.  it’s great to have that perspective; if more  people had it, there wouldn’t nearly be the nonsense in the world that we have to put up with.


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