Friday, November 9, 2012

The Experts Weigh In: Living With Long-Term Illness


I used to believe I had a super immune system.  I lived with two girls in college and beyond who caught every disease under the sun, but I never seemed to get sick.  For a long time, I believed my body was just better than the average person’s.  I could go outside in the cold with wet hair, let my dog lick my face, eat undercooked meat… nothing bothered me.  Here's the proof - I took one sick day in October 2006 and that was my last one for five years.

But in November 2011, I was suddenly hit with what felt like the flu.  Night sweats, nausea, aches all over my body, no appetite.  I just figured my body was finally cashing in on some illness time.  The problem was that my symptoms didn’t go away no matter what I did.  Doctors’ visits, holistic medicines, hot showers, witch doctors (one of those might be false) - I just couldn’t shake the funk.  Finally in January, my friend and co-worker ordered me to my dad’s doctor, where they finally took chest X-rays and found what I refer to now as "The Shadow". I was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Fast forward 10 months.  I spent the year going through six rounds of very intense chemotherapy and 28 days of radiation, in which my muscles atrophied, my hair fell out and my innards basically got microwaved.  The treatments ended in August, but it’s taken a while for my body to feel normal again.  I won’t lie to you - it still doesn’t feel normal - but I will share a few thoughts on what’s working for me to rebuild my strength, and what may help you out after going through any sort of long-term illness.

As you can imagine, eight months of minimal activity (plus four years of smoking) took their toll on my endurance.  Luckily, I quit smoking cold turkey in January and that hasn’t been a problem since, but my lungs still needed to be rebuilt.  I have an extreme lack of “get up and go” when it comes to exercise.  My dad gets up at 5 a.m. six days a week to work out.  I believe that’s foolishness.  However, my oncologist told me I had to exercise more, no excuses, so I hired an amazing trainer who puts me through boot camp paces twice a week.  After the first class, I wanted to die.  Actually after my most recent class this past Monday, I still wanted to die.  But I can now actually get through an entire class without resting, and my body is starting to do things it wasn’t able to do before I got cancer, which feels pretty epic.

I’ve spent most of 2012 not having an appetite worth talking about.  It’s a shame too because the doctor gave me carte blanche to eat whatever I wanted as long as I was eating.  Too bad I didn’t care.  The only thing I craved was hard candy because I had "Chemo Sweet Tooth".  Now, I’m having to retrain my body to want food that is good for me and to want it on a regular schedule.  Easier said than done. 

The best things I’ve found (that I can tolerate) are soups and stews.  They’re the food equivalent of a fuzzy puppy, fairly easy to make, and easy to add extra veggies to.  I’m including my current favorite from my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook for Chicken and Cornmeal Dumplings.  I’m also no good at eating my required nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.  In an effort to remedy this, I (a self-professed infomercial junkie) bought a NutriBullet to replace my Power Juicer.  Space-wise and cleaning-wise, the NutriBullet is light years beyond most juicers.  However, most of my favorite juices can be made in any type of juicer.  For nausea or a sweet tooth, I enjoy a blend of red apples (preferably Gala), carrots, and fresh ginger blended together.  This is full of fiber and vitamin A, plus the ginger will soothe any stomach maladies you’re having.  I’ve also stumbled upon a blend of kale, frozen raspberries and pineapples that’s quite good.  For both of these, if you’re using the Bullet, add some water; in a regular juicer, just do what you’d normally do.

I try not to get bogged down by the fear of relapsing and having my tumor come back. At the end of the day, I can’t do anything but try to live the best life possible.  That (unfortunately) means renouncing my party girl ways and cutting waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back on the alcohol.  Not only can the alcohol interfere with the plethora of medications I’m currently on, resulting in some nasty mood swings and temper tantrums, it has a ton of sugar.  Sugar is like…well, candy for a tumor.  Tumors thrive on excesses of sugar, which gives them energy to grow into all manners of nastiness.  Plus drinking too much in general is going to make me regain all my pre-cancer break-up weight, which is slightly less than awesome.

I keep a pretty small network of super-close friends as a general rule. They are people I can talk to about anything.  And it’s been healthy for me to vent about my fears regarding my health and my future, rather than keeping everything bottled up inside.  To anyone going through a chronic or long-term illness: you’re going through something real and it’s okay to be upset and to not bounce back from it right away.  I’m finding a lot of comfort meeting with a psychologist once a month just to check in and fine-tune things here and there.  It’s always worth knowing your feelings are valid and you’re not just crazy.  And in a pinch, I enjoy talking to my dog.  He’s not much on responses per se, but he’s a great snuggle buddy and reminds me that I’m never alone.

If you or someone you love is dealing with a long-term illness, please feel free to check out my blog 'Lymph to Victory' for support (and a few laughs). Click here to view.

Rachel Boyd is from the great city of Hot'lanta and attended the University of Georgia, where she received a degree in English before completing her Master's at Kennesaw State University. But enough with the formalities, Rachel is a competitive skeeball player AND touts that, as a child, she was the best pogo stick jumper around. Her favorite past times include puttering around book stores looking for trashy novels or Southern non-fiction, watching marathons of America's Next Top Model, or taking her pup on doggie dates around town. When asked what her favorite part about living in Atlanta is, Rachel replied "You can go to the opera or a corn maze within 40 minutes of each other. That's a well-rounded city." To learn more about Rachel, visit her blog Lymph to Victory by clicking here!

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