On recovering from cancer chemotherapy


Consider the following as a partial explanation for our long blogging silence. . .

Chemotherapy, I have learned, ain’t no picnic

Films, television dramas, and news features frequently deal with the sometimes-nasty immediate impact of poisoning the body in hopes that the toxins will be taken up by cancer cells, which typically multiply faster than the healthy cells of their host organs.

And, by and large, chemo has done a notable job of boosting the life expectancies of those afflicted with one of the host of ailments going by the common name of cancer.

We didn’t have just one form of cancer. No, we had two.

In addition to the prostate adenoma that’s almost inevitable for the aging male, I also had a much more pernicious Stage IV “high grade metastatic micropapillary urothelial carcinoma” of the bladder, which had pierced through the muscle begun infiltrating into the lymphatic system, the fast track to metastasis in other organs.

The prognosis wasn’t good. Even with surgery and chemo, sources we consulted at the time listed survival odds after five years at about one in five, although numbers I found today raised that overall number to 58 percent.

After I lost our bladder and prostate to the surgeon’s knife on the morning of 20 November 2012, then started a four-month-long regime of chemotherapy on 8 January.

Chemo was, in short, miserable. There was the nausea, and to counter it, drugs that caused constipation so bad that two emergency room trip were required. We were spared further visits after our oncologist, since retired, provided authorization for medical marijuana.

I lost about half my hair, and what was left turned white. We were pleasantly surprised when most of it grew back, with no more gray in it than before the chemo.

But there were other consequences, some more serious.

First, I lost a lot of feeling in my feet, a consequence of the neuropathy that comes when toxic chemicals used in chemo attack healthy tissue [nerves]. While daily doses of gabapentin have helped, we have to deal with a constant tingling sensation in the feet, as though they had “gone asleep” and were tingling as they slowly came awake. Without full sensation in the soles of the feet, balance is impaired.

Second, I lost about half our hearing range, and am now forced to rely on subtitles in the TV and DVDs we watch. Hearing aids are so expensive as to be out of the question. As a result, I haven’t been in a movie theater or a public in three years or so. A few folks speak within the range of frequencies remaining, but not many, so I am forced either to ask people to talk louder and repeat themselves, or simply hear nothing at all.

So scratch any possible jobs involving breaking news stories and public meetings
But what’s far worse is “chemo brain,” problems with another set of nerves, those in the brain so crucial to memory, both its formation and in its role in recalling past events [autobiographical as opposed to procedural memory]. Once dismissed as folk mythology, studies have proven that a significant number of chemotherapy patients sustain long-term damage to memory formation and recall, as well as a significant rise in lingering depression [though, let’s face it, getting cancer is depressing].

One could argue that memory loss is to be expected in a 69-year-old male, but the nature of the loss and the accompanying ennui and depression leave me convinced that chemo is the primary culprit.

One drug that does show promise for a post-chemo brain rewiring, but it’s currently illegal. The chemical in question is psilocybin, the primary active ingredient in shrooms, or magic mushrooms.

A study published by Britain’s Royal Society has show psilocybin to increase the density and range of inter-brain connections to an unprecedented degree. Sadly, we’ve no access to the compound, which the federal government classifies as more dangerous that crystal meth and on a par with heroin.

From the study, this graphic indicates the astounding power of the drug to create and strengthen connections, with connections in untreated brains shown on the left and post-psilocybin connections shown on the right:

BLOG Shroombrain

6 responses to “On recovering from cancer chemotherapy

  1. Congratulations on being able to let us know your experiences. Being 69 is not that old, your still a youngster.

  2. Hi Richard, you can‘t imagine the joy I sensed when today early in the (German) morning I opened my reader and found yourself alive and kicking and blogging again. Your silence has given me lots of things to deeply worry about. Thank you (and maybe god) for your stamina and toughness (don‘t know whether this is the right word in English)! A longtime reader from Germany wishes you the best from the bottom of her heart. Thank you for the incredible input in this blog which kept me thinking, laughing, sometimes crying for many years. Please, try to keep it going.

  3. Glad you are back – you were missed. The cost of hearing aids is a disgrace – they are cheap to produce. Your description of cancer treatment is of great interest. One in three are expected to suffer cancer – as if ageing wasn’t bad enough! Still it’s better than the alternative – which my late Mother who died aged 94 kept telling me when I enquired after her health.

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