Growing up with hot and humid Midwestern summers, I loved the months between May and September. Sure, there were mosquitoes and my family eschewed air conditioning, but I was lucky enough to live in the actual woods, shrouded by heavy, oaken branches, and luckier still to have a pool. For at least ten consecutive summers, I practically lived in our pool. But I also thrived on land, riding my bike on country roads, spending long days in my early teens working on a local farm, and getting egregious sunburns (because it was, after all, the 1970s and 80s and people were still applying oil instead of sunblock).
As an adult, I have lived entirely in Los Angeles, and the summers used to still offer me something uniquely special. The lack of humidity and the constant breeze sweeping down the Venice corridor made up for the extra ten degrees of sheer heat I would sometimes have to deal with, but dealing with it by hitting the beach was hardly a bad trade-off. They might have been tough months when I was stuck on long commutes across town, but in general, I still loved my summers. Even when they gradually began to feel hotter, year after year, I only grumbled about Climate Change, not so much my own personal battles.
That changed with chemo.
Chemo and the Heat Don’t Mix
I began my treatment for stage IV lung cancer in the winter, enjoying the cooler LA nights as I would sweat out the toxins and alternate between huddling, chilled, under a thick fleece or kicking it off to cool down. For three progressively longer months, this nighttime ritual became more prominent. In April and May, I felt that things were beginning to even out — it was a lovely spring. Shifting into maintenance mode, my sense of smell was returning and I could sense budding flowers on each afternoon breeze. My dose of chemotherapy was much lower and the periods of night sweats had greatly decreased. And then, as if without warning, like a nasty slap across my face, summer smacked me hard. June was not my friend.
The dry heat made my lungs feel heavy. Every step felt twenty pounds heavier, my shoes suddenly weighted with invisible lead. Movement slowed.
Each tick up on the thermometer was an insult. I found myself being pushed back indoors just as the sunlight had truly begun to beckon me. It seemed worse every day, almost cumulative, reminiscent of how the chemo had initially snuck its insidious nature into my life. But I had adjusted to the chemo, perhaps I could adjust to the heat.
My oncologist and the nurse who ran the lung cancer support group I attended both had the insight to share. First, there were some physical issues to understand.
What You Should Know
Heat works in conjunction with smog or other air pollution to make your lungs work harder — regardless of your overall health. But people with compromised lungs are likely going to feel this more intensely. Heat may exacerbate inflammation. And harder-working lungs can actually contribute to dehydration, which is going to make the entire body feel worse, from the brain on down.
Chemo (and radiation, too) can often make skin more sensitive to the damaging effects of sunlight. Your oncologist should go over any issues of photosensitivity known to be associated with your treatment, but since every patient is unique it is always best to simply pay attention to how your body is affected by exposure.1
Check out part 2 of Beating the Heat – With a Hammer