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If you are a young woman reading this, you likely have no idea what a true hot flash feels like. And why should you? Oh, how I wish I could go back to a time when hot flashes were just something I assumed old women complained about. (Sorry, Mom.) But, regrettably, they are very much a part of my daily reality, keeping me with one foot firmly planted in Cancer Land.
Because my cancer was a type that feeds off estrogen in order to grow, I have to take a drug called Tamoxifen for up to 10 years. Tamoxifen – which prevents estrogen from reaching any cancer cells – has a host of side effects, such as chronic hot flashes and night sweats. Not everyone experiences these. Unfortunately, I fall into the camp of those who do.
I remember when I was first told about hot flashes as a potential side effect. I thought: “No big deal; what’s a little heat? It will keep me cozy in the wintertime!” This positive attitude quickly took a nosedive after I experienced what a hot flash actually feels like, which I can only describe as a walk through hell – hot, fiery, flaming hell.
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The flashes sneak up on me at all hours of the day. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a conversation when I feel one coming on. I feel a bit dizzy and weak, and then, from the inside out, the heat begins to rise. My face feels like it is literally burning, my cheeks about to explode into a ball of flames. My back is dripping. I don’t want to bring attention to it, so I continue on with whatever I am doing, hoping no one realizes that I have turned into a giant sweat puddle. Eventually the heat subsides, and, embracing the cool air on my skin, I sit back and wait for the next one to hit.
The worst flashes come at night. I wake up with my sheets stuck to me and frantically kick them off. My husband, lying next to me, is tightly bundled and wearing a long-sleeved shirt because I’ve cranked the AC, but I am sprawled naked, breathing deeply, wiping my forehead and waiting for the hot flash to pass. This scene repeats itself multiple times through the night, and the next day I feel like a zombie.
Sometimes, during a particularly bad attack, I stare up at the ceiling and cry quietly, feeling sorry for myself. Overcome with exhaustion, I think about how unfair it is that I had to experience my first hot flash at 28 years old. I think about how angry I am that I got cancer in the first place and am now stuck dealing with its aftermath. It feels impossible to move on, or to have even one day without thinking about cancer, when my body is crying out to me, forcing me to remember.
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When I have these moments of self-pity, my survivor guilt kicks in. I think about the people I knew who had cancer and didn’t make it, who would have changed places with me in a heartbeat. I know I am lucky to be alive, and my treatment side effects are a small price to pay for getting to be here, living, breathing, every day. I’m grateful that I had a type of cancer that can be treated with drugs that will lower the chances of it recurring. I know I am one of the lucky ones.
All this doesn’t negate the fact that feeling like an old lady at the age of 30 is a huge bummer. But I’ll learn to accept that a life without any thought of cancer is, for now at least, just out of my reach. And in the meantime, I’ll kick the blanket off, put my face in front of the fan and wait patiently, knowing that I’ll get that gold star...eventually.
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