Unexpected Side-Effects, The Weird And The Wonderful

Everybody understands that lung cancer patients are likely to experience fun things like excessive vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, hair loss, and even open sores on the skin or in the mouth. The old stories about treatment tend to focus on some of the least glamorous side-effects, but there are many side-effects that are not as entrenched in the popular culture. While maybe not as common as others, a few of these side-effects might actually seem like tiny perks -- especially to a patient who otherwise has precious few silver linings in the treatment process.

Finding the silver lining

I have written about the unsung benefits of chemo brain, which makes a terrific scapegoat for all things forgotten (or that simply should have been). And cancer treatment is always a great excuse for taking an extra nap or getting out of dinner with the boss or being pressured to sit through that dreadfully boring play you would otherwise be too polite to decline. But those are mere benefits that a patient can create for herself, to take advantage of an otherwise miserable experience. There are, however, actual, real side-effects to various treatments that are measurably pleasant in their own small ways.

From grey to blonde

One of the most well-known of these positive side-effects is the effect that chemo or targeted therapies have on some patient's hair. Sure, many patients lose their hair during treatment -- but it grows back. And when it does, there are plenty of patients who experience thicker, curlier, and even more vibrantly colored hair than they had before. While I did not lose my hair, it did turn uniformly grey during early chemotherapy, only to become blonde on the top after I switched to a targeted drug.

Simultaneously, my fingernails became smooth and clear after years of having white splotches and ridges on them. Of course, my renewed vanity from the changes in my hair was somewhat offset by the pervasive acne rash that covered much of my face and body. Still, the combined impression reminded me very much of my teenage years (and the mood swings brought on by my medications probably reinforced that feeling). Ah, the sweet nostalgia of youth...

The cancer diet

Then there is what I affectionately refer to as "the cancer diet." Not to be confused with wasting, which is a very serious condition and requires medical attention, cancer treatment often leads to substantial weight loss. While I initially put on a "few" extra pounds in preparation for my treatment -- and continued to gain weight through carefully planned meals -- I eventually discovered that I no longer fit into my old clothes. I was toying with the idea of a new wardrobe when I underwent radiation therapy and subsequently spent about two weeks not digesting much of my food. The downside, of course, was daily vomiting and diarrhea that prevented me from absorbing enough calories. As a result, my muscle mass and virtually all my body fat began to dwindle away. (Serendipitously, I also contracted the stomach flu, which extended the process an extra five days.) The result, however, was that I no longer needed that new wardrobe. And, by maintaining a relatively active lifestyle, I have only regained enough weight for everything to fit properly again.

Goodbye body odor

Perhaps the strangest and most unexpected side-effect for me, however, was the abrupt end of any body odor. During chemotherapy, I often felt that I smelled extremely bad. I perspired profusely and always felt oily. My own body odor repulsed me. I bathed excessively and experimented with quite a few deodorants (some of which turned me off as much as my own scent). This process went on for several years while I struggled to find a way to mask the many smells that bothered me.

Then one day, again after switching treatments, I realized two things: one, my body had stopped producing so much oil that even my hair never seemed to get dirty and, two, I no longer smelled bad to myself. Not only did I find that there was no foul odor coming from my skin, but there was no odor at all. With nothing to mask or even wash away, I found that it was possible to shower only once a week without anyone being the wiser. Not that I would recommend that, of course -- it still makes sense to be clean.

Certainly, cancer treatment is generally unpleasant. There are many side-effects that need to be monitored and some can be quite dangerous. But it does not hurt to keep your eye out for those little perks. Every patient can use a touch of positivity in his experience, and sometimes, it can come through as the unexpected result of however a body reacts to these difficult but essential treatments.

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.

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