Chemo Aged Me Early
Last updated: September 2022
We all want to stay young as long as possible. The youth culture is practically shoved down our throats through our media. Aging gracefully is encouraged, but only after it has become impossible to fight. None of us really looks forward to dealing with rickety bones or, goodness knows, looking mature. (You see, I can barely bring myself to use the word "old.")
When I began my treatment, I was a comparatively youthful forty-six years old. My hair had begun to grey, but it was hardly noticeable unless I let it grow out. I drank water religiously, which is to say that I was never dehydrated; no camel, I, there was nary a moment at home when a glass was not within reach. I was fit and active; I ate a healthy, balanced diet; it had been years since I had a sunburn; I had an aversion to smoking; I rarely drank. People regularly told me how young I looked, or at least that was how I filtered their comments through my vanity.
Feeling fit and healthy...then comes chemo
I did not need to suck in my gut the morning my oncologist gave me the diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer. Although I had been short of breath for several months at that point, I had increasingly been feeling better and more active. Indeed, I had been getting a fair amount of exercise that fall, mostly walking, and although I was tired a lot of the time, I was keeping trim.
We began talking about chemotherapy options. I got a second opinion. The various drugs that could be used to treat my adenocarcinoma were presented in detail, allowing me to see what might be expected from each in terms of side effects and desired outcomes. In the end, I picked the combination that was least likely to cause me to lose my hair. Conveniently, it was also the cocktail that appeared most likely to offer long-term stability with less adverse side effects overall. But I was excited about the prospect of not losing my hair nonetheless.
My hair still thinned. And to say that I greyed over the course of the ensuing treatment is to underplay the amount of silver and white that also joined in. My oncologist reminded me that I was almost fifty. For over two and a half years, the subtle changes to my body became more and more noticeable to me as the chemotherapy held its course. Sure, by my late-forties, I should have expected increased changes to my hair color.
But it did not end there
That new paunch, for example. Where I had, if not a six-pack, at least a flat stomach at the outset of my treatment, now I had a verifiable gut. My old pants no longer fit and my waist size increased by about two inches (in spite of my determination to squeeze into a favorite pair of jeans every now and again with their thankfully low waist). Okay, maybe I cannot blame the paunch completely on the chemotherapy, but I do blame my reduced exercise on the chemo-related fatigue that I often could not shake.
The real aging, though, was apparent in my skin. And the two places I see it the most are in my arms and my face. Where the skin on the back of my hands used to snap back immediately if I pinched it, now it moves like silly putty. The elasticity is all but gone, along with the smoothly textured skin that has been replaced by the crepe paper now wrapping my bones. My face, once mildly oily and just plump enough to offer the impression I was still holding onto just a touch of baby fat, now looked alternately gaunt and puffy, with dull brown spotting and deeper creases than I imagined I could have unless I would have been out riding the range for years, full Marlboro Man. And that was all chemo.
Vanity is ultimately meaningless
My oncologist reminded me that I was still alive. That was a bonus because nothing ages a body faster than dying; this was a really good point. In fact, it was the point. Vanity will only get a person so far in life. And it is ultimately meaningless.
I do not care so much what I look like as long as I get to see my daughter's next milestone. A few more heavy lines across my brow are a fair trade off for a few more months doing things that I love. Spotty skin is an easy trade for joyful laughter. And my gut, well, I can work on that. I figure, if I can still suck it in, I can probably tighten it up again.
And, grey or silver or white, I still have more hair than my dad did when he hit fifty. So, really, mission accomplished.
Do you feel that chemo or other treatment options have "aged you early?" You are not alone. Share your story with us here.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
Happy Lung Cancer Awareness Month! What does self-advocacy mean to you?