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What Does Getting Better Look Like?

I have been asked more than once what it might look like while I am getting better. The question is not as absurd as one might think — I have written about how difficult it is to get a sense of a patient’s physical well-being based on appearance. The image we project is not always a reflection of how we feel. And on several occasions, I have both looked and felt better while my cancer continued growing inside. And that leads me into the question itself: getting better from what?

Looking my worst while getting better

In some respect, I have looked my worst because I was getting better. Getting “better” from cancer means removing the cancer from your system, after all. It is not always a tidy process, and it can leave plenty of scars, both physical and emotional. I have not had surgery, but I have seen that the recovery may be long and difficult, especially when a major organ is involved. And in many cases, surgery is followed by other treatments that will have their own physical impact and emotional toll.

Every patient responds differently to treatment. The same drug may make one patient lose hair while another grows it out. Because of the uniqueness of our genetics, there is no absolute predictor for which side-effects a patient will experience or how intense those might be.

The way that a treatment wreaks havoc on the surface of the body is not a direct correlation to how well the internal work is going. But that internal work is potentially doing other damage that the body will need to recover from. Which deepens the question of what we are getting better from.

The chance to rebalance

There was a time when I thought that getting better from my cancer would look a lot like getting better from the flu. If my chemotherapy made me look and feel like I was suffering from the flu, that should be it. Of course, cancer treatment, especially for metastatic patients, is rarely so easy. First of all, there are lingering issues, like neuropathy. There are changes that may be permanent, like changes in hair and skin. Or there may be nothing other than the potential for recurrence — or, as in my case, after years of stability, finding out there is progression.

Getting better in that case suddenly looked the same as getting worse. The wash-out period between treatments, however, might feel wonderful. The body has a chance to rebalance itself, to heal the damage that was done during treatment, even while the tumors inside are able to thrive. I recall looking pretty amazing, highly refreshed and energetic, after getting off my chemo. And over the ensuing time period, in which I tried several other therapies, I had various levels of looking and feeling healthy. Most of that time, the tumors inside my body were still able to grow.

Treatment trade-offs

My most recent treatment has been my most successful, and I would also say it has made me look my most horrific. In just two months, my primary tumor went from its largest size ever to its smallest size since my diagnosis. I would qualify that as getting better. But my body is a mess. It, too, shall get better, I imagine; that should look like weight going back on, skin clearing up, maybe even hair growing back. I would like to see all of that happen, to see the body recover from the treatment, but then there is the matter of what happens next.

Even if I find myself in the coveted position of having No Evidence of Disease, treatment may still continue. And there will always be the threat of return. So, to answer the question as broadly as possible, I hope that getting better always looks good. It may look good on a scan — smaller tumors or no signs at all of cancer. It may look good on the skin. It may just look good in the eyes of the patient, happy and confident in knowing that there is another day of being able to experience this wide, wonderful world we live in.

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • PatsyLee
    10 months ago

    Just joined. I, too — look better than I feel! I am also so appreciative of our beautiful world. Will be starting my fifth round of chemo this coming week. Weak! Am trying to keep going. Have two grandchildren that I would love to stick around for as long as possible!
    I hope to glean information to help myself…. I have been reading but there is so much information out there.
    Trying to eat lots of organic vegetables and fruits daily.

  • Jeffrey Poehlmann moderator author
    10 months ago

    @patsylee, please let us know if there is anything specific you are looking for – or use the search function here to find what you need. Best of luck with the next round of chemo — and keep looking good in the meantime! Hopefully it will not be long until you feel as good as you look.

    I’m not a doctor, but I suggest that for now you focus on calories if you are feeling at all weak. One of the best things that helped me through chemo was eating a lot of whatever I could enjoy the most…

    Wishing you all the best!

  • gramsie
    11 months ago

    Thanks for your input! It’s so true that how I look is not at all how I feel! People tell me I look good, I usually reply” I look better than I feel”. Smiling because of the chance to enjoy wonderful world we live in helps me keep my spirits up. I thank God every day for his grace

  • Jeffrey Poehlmann moderator author
    11 months ago

    Thank you for sharing, @gramsie. We know that “I look better than I feel” reply all too well! Keep smiling!

  • Yolanda Brunson-Sarrabo moderator
    11 months ago

    Thank you, Jeffrey, for this great reflection. I’m sure many of the readers can relate, as this so varies from person to person. We tend to believe that if we’re all smiles and go about life as regular, that we’re not in pain. The truth is we all do what we must, and maintain comfort the best that we can, as you so perfectly put it in this”Wide, Wonderful World, we live in. Best

  • Jeffrey Poehlmann moderator author
    11 months ago

    Thank you, Yolanda! That means a lot to hear.

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