Monday, August 11, 2008

Taking Symptoms Seriously

I think my over-active imagination has worked in my favor throughout this cancer experience. I'd imagined the possibility of being diagnosed with a terminal illness someday so when I got the cancer diagnosis, I didn't freak out or fall into a deep depression. I'd already been there in my imagination, so when it became reality, I just had to play along.

I've read many accounts of people with cancer and the symptoms they suffer. I've read the medical literature about the side-effects of the cancer treatments. When my oncologist told me about some of her patients with Hand-Foot Syndrome whose skin just peeled right off their hands and feet, I pictured these people with open, gushing, skinned appendages who had to be hospitalized and kept in sterile bubbles.

When I read about vomiting and nausea from chemo, I imagined I'd be retching into a bucket all day and night. When I read about chemo-induced diarrhea, I imagined I'd have to be hospitalized to be rehydrated and fed by tube.

So when I started getting a few blisters and a bit of raw, cracked skin on my feet, I thought it was just overly dry skin. And when the cracked skin started bleeding and oozing pus, I thought I just had infections. When I started getting diarrhea, I thought it was just like the time I had food poisoning. When I started feeling nausea, I thought it wasn't as bad as when I had morning sickness from pregnancy.

Even back in March and April, when I went through a bad spell, I initially thought I was just a bit more tired than usual and would be able to hold my head up without pillows if I just lay down for a little nap. When I had trouble breathing, I thought it was no big deal; I'd just move a bit more slowly and not talk so much.

All of these symptoms sort of snuck up on me little by little and quietly - slowly enough that they didn't seem nearly as serious as the symptoms I'd been reading about in the medical literature or that I'd been imagining in my mind.

I recently re-read the description of Hand-Foot Syndrome in the leaflet that comes with the chemo drug I'm taking. According to that leaflet, my case is Grade 2 out of 4 and I should be alerting my doctor "immediately". I think they're a bit strict with their recommendations just in case they're held legally liable if a patient has a really bad reaction to the drug.

I guess my question is... how seriously should I take my symptoms? I really don't think I'm in any danger because I have a few infected toes. Then again, Christopher Reeve died of an infection from a bed sore.

With cancer, it's hard to find the line between overreacting and not reacting enough.

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