Sorting Out Symptoms from Side Effects

After the conclusion of my radiation treatment, my intestines took a while to recover. I had diarrhea every day, vomited occasionally, felt cruddy overall, and suffered from cramping and malaise. So when I thought I was getting better and then took a sudden turn for the worse, it took me a couple of days to sort out what was really going on. Now I was dealing with the stomach flu; the symptoms closely matched the side-effects of what I had been dealing with, but there were subtle differences.

Side effect from treatment or something else?

I never broke a fever, which made it trickier to figure out what was going on. Probably because I had gotten my flu shot earlier in the season, the full effects of the flu never quite hit. Still, I was laid up in bed for three days with cramping and initially had hourly runs to the bathroom. My body felt like my early days of chemo, except that, ironically, chemo never made me vomit so much or have diarrhea.

This experience has made me very aware of how important it is to be in tune with our bodies and to pay attention to their signals. At first, my family was convinced that it was all being caused by intestinal damage from the radiation. That was my first thought. But I could not get past the fact that I had been noting consistent improvements in how my body had been feeling and performing. It made no sense that there would be a sudden change without some sort of cause.

Keeping track of daily symptoms

When I began my chemotherapy treatments, I kept a journal of how I felt every day. I did this for several months to track my progress, to see how my body acclimated, and to learn how to predict the way I would be feeling at any point in my cycle. It was a very effective means of getting to know my body in these new circumstances. After a while, things became very predictable for me and I could plan ahead around how I expected to feel on any given day. When I switched to a targeted treatment after 40 cycles of chemo had run their course, I picked up the habit again. This time, on a daily pill, I kept the journal until I was confident that I knew all my side effects and could anticipate how they might come and go.

Each of these experiences was useful in helping to get used to the rhythm of my body during treatment. I felt in tune with what was going on, in spite of how uncomfortable it might have been. While I was undergoing radiation, I kept an ongoing log of how I was feeling, but this was quite different. Instead of a long, predictable cycle, it was a short experience of feeling progressively worse until it was over and then waiting to feel better again. I had barely gotten used to the side effects when they were beginning to wear off. And that is when my flu hit, confounding things.

Paying attention to our bodies

I had to really take stock of my body so as to know what I was dealing with — and what I was not dealing with. When there is so much going on with a body as a result of treatment, it may be difficult to sort out the source of discomfort or feelings of illness. But the more we pay attention to what we are going through, the easier the process becomes.

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