The Shock of Looking in the Mirror — Cancer and Body Changes

The body can change rapidly when undergoing cancer treatment. Some of the ways this happens are practically part of our popular culture: the hair loss, the sallow complexion, the frail demeanor. But there are a wide variety of ways in which our bodies might respond to various treatments, some surprising, and it may be hard from one week to the next to recognize that face staring back from the mirror.

Starting to see changes during treatment

During my first treatment protocol, there was a running joke among my medical team that I was the one gaining weight and growing my hair out. As the months progressed, I actually looked healthier than I had when I began treatment, at least from a distance. Up close, and I tried to play this up as an example of “looking younger,” you could see that I was plagued intermittently by an almost teenage acne. But as the months turned into years, my skin took a toll and it was clear that the chemo was aging me far earlier than my actual years.

Eventually, it caught up with me in a number of ways. My gait was affected, my posture suffered, it was apparent in my eyes that the cumulative fatigue had taken a toll. When I switched from chemo to a targeted therapy, I had to also start taking an antibiotic that would help prevent a similar sort of full-body acne rash. The switch alleviated the fatigue, quite dramatically in fact, to the point where my eyes were once again bright and the spring began to return to my step. Until I had a reaction to the antibiotic that caused my joints to become stiff and sore. Suddenly, the renewed energy could not compensate for my creaking, zombified movements.

Side effects take their toll

As soon as I was off the antibiotic, the rash began to set in. I had to keep fully covered up, since direct sunlight made the acne worse. And worse it was: rather than something that merely came and went as a few blemishes, I was covered head to toe in inflamed, red patches. It took about five different prescription lotions to get my skin back under control. I was dry everywhere, even my scalp, and it itched like crazy. My hair started changing color, reverting from silver-grey to its original blonde on top, while the sides of my head stayed grey but changed texture.

It seemed to me that every month I looked like a different person. I used to recognize my father in my face, but he had gone. I could no longer see that kid I was in college. It seemed to me that old friends would no longer be able to recognize me in passing. But nothing had prepared me for the changes that would come after I began radiation.

Struggling to maintain weight

The zone being treated was in my lower back, but it passed through my gut and in just ten short sessions managed to do quite a bit of temporary damage. I began vomiting and having diarrhea every day, and though I could mostly control it with medication it still became quite difficult to keep food down. In about a week, I had lost over ten pounds. By the end of two weeks, I was still struggling to keep enough food in to maintain my weight. And just when things seemed to be getting better, I was hit with the stomach flu.

A few days into that, I dragged myself to the mirror and had no idea who I was looking at. Some old man was there, staring me down with sagging eyes. That wasn’t me. Couldn’t be me. I had gone from being a “healthy” couple of pounds overweight to being a stick of a human being who had been feeding off his own muscle for weeks. I had to pull off my medication entirely during this period because it was making my gut so much worse, and it was a good thing that I did. Because in spite of how I looked, my body was getting better.

Bracing for future changes

The flu took a few days to get out of my system, but as soon as it did my appetite returned with a vengeance. It is amazing how quickly solid foods can help return body mass. I almost recognize that guy in the glass, and I think he is looking pretty good after all. But next week I’m switching to a new treatment and wondering already who or what will be gazing back at me after that.

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