Getting Through the Down Days of Cancer
- Beverly Hills, 90210 alum Shannen Doherty, 50, has been a constant source of inspiration for her friends, fans, and fellow cancer survivors as she thrives through her stage 4 breast cancer journey going out with friends, riding horses, and enjoying the occasional margarita.
- While it’s important to show courage, strength, and wear pink for this cause, Doherty also wants to show people the darker days of the disease. The actress posted vulnerable photos of herself experiencing symptoms like a nosebleed and laying in bed in her pajamas to show the real side of cancer.
- While many cancer patients experience a range of different symptoms, managing the more common side effects like fatigue and nausea are often done with the tried and true doctor-recommended ways of staying healthy: Rest, exercise and a healthy diet.
Doherty, who is married to photographer Kurt Iswarienko, posted some raw photos of her darker days, while still expressing humor and light.
“For breast cancer awareness month, I’d like to share more of my own personal journey from my first diagnosis to my second,” she wrote next to a photo of herself experiencing a nosebleed. “Is it all pretty? NO but it’s truthful and my hope in sharing is that we all become more educated, more familiar with what cancer looks like. I hope I encourage people to get mammograms, to get regular checkups, to cut thru the fear and face whatever might be in front of you.”
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Doherty went on to share that she was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. “I had a mastectomy and did chemo and radiation. I had many nose bleeds from the chemo,” she continued. “Not sure if any of you experienced this. I also was beyond tired. I cheered myself up by putting on funny pajamas that my friend Kristy gave me. Did they actually cheer me up? Yes!! Lol. I looked ridiculous and in that ridiculousness, I was able to laugh at myself. Finding humor helped get me thru what seemed impossible. I hope we all find humor in the impossible.”
A Breast Cancer Recurrence
After Doherty’s initial diagnosis, she underwent hormone therapy, but the treatments were ineffective; the cancer spread to her lymph nodes.
She had a single mastectomy to remove her breast, along with chemotherapy and radiation treatments as she mentioned in her post.
Doherty’s cancer went into remission, but several years later in February 2020, she announced that her cancer had come back, and it had spread to other parts of her body. She was now at stage 4. Metastatic breast cancer.
When breast cancer spreads, it most commonly goes to the bones, liver and lungs. It may also spread to the brain or other organs.
Currently, there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer, but new treatments have been improving survival rates.
“What we find is that everyone comes to acceptance in their own time with support—that some people never really reach acceptance,” Marshall Gold, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, tells SurvivorNet.
Acceptance looks different for everyone, Marshall Gold, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, tells SurvivorNet. Remember that battling cancer is a very personal experience and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
“I think the ways we can support these women are just to honor really how horrible the diagnosis is and the uncertainty that lies ahead and to try to reframe what is most important to you,” Gold says. “What do you continue to live for? What brings you joy? To try to see that little silver lining in a horrible situation.”
Managing Symptoms During Treatment
While the most common side effects during chemotherapy treatment are fatigue, nausea and bone pain, cancer patients tend to experience different symptoms at different times, some more mild, some more severe. Symptoms will also range due to varying lengths of treatment programs and will also be different depending on what drugs you are taking.
Interestingly enough, experts say that women who have experienced more nausea with pregnancy will experience more nausea with treatment, while the reverse is often true.
As far as ways to manage symptoms, the tried and true ways of staying healthy as a person without cancer also tends to hold true for cancer patients struggling with side effects: Eating right, getting plenty of rest, and light exercise like walking will help loosen the joints and overall help with managing symptoms.
Dr. Zachary Reese, medical oncologist at Intermountain Healthcare in St. George, Utah, tells SurvivorNet a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and yes, getting enough quality sleep at night will support your body both during chemotherapy and beyond as you recover.
Many cancer patients say that eating lighter, more frequent meals can help curb nausea when it’s coming on, whereas heavier meals, particularly those with red sauce, can provoke heartburn. Drinking plenty of water is always a good idea.
“What I typically tell patients is that [chemotherapy] is a bit of a roller coaster ride,” says Reese. “You’re going to feel tired about a week into treatment, and that’s when you’ll hit bottom. And then you’ll start to come back up again just in time to do it all over.”
While this persistent tiredness can leave you feeling discouraged, it’s important to think about why you’re likely feeling fatigued to begin with. Chemotherapy’s role in cancer treatment is to attack quickly dividing cells in the body. In an ideal scenario, only the cancer cells would be affected, but it’s impossible for the medication to pinpoint and destroy only diseased cells. That means healthy cells become innocent bystanders of chemotherapy, as well.
Fatigue sets in when these healthy cells start to die. Sometimes looking at chemotherapy as your friend can help you mentally charge through the down days. This treatment is to getting you well, and you can mentally handle fatigue a bit better as you visualize the bigger picture: the potential for longer lasting health.
In addition to these healthy living strategies, Dr. Reese’s top tip is to stay active. “This doesn’t mean that anyone expects chemotherapy patients to run a 5K or a marathon, but getting out and doing 30 minutes of exercise a day can go a long way,” he says. “If 30 minutes a day seems daunting, start with just 10 minutes and then add on a few extra minutes each day. Pick an activity you enjoy, so that you’re not watching the clock the whole time. Things like walking with a friend or family member, swimming laps, or yoga all count as exercise.”
It may seem counterintuitive to exercise as a means to stop feeling tired (particularly if you’re constantly feeling tired to begin with), but maintaining an active lifestyle will not only help you deal with fatigue, but will also help you get through the remainder of your treatment. “[Physical activity] won’t eliminate fatigue, but it’s going to minimize it so that you will be able to get through the required number of treatments and come out the other end feeling better and stronger,” says Dr. Reese.
Again, distracting yourself mentally with work or other hobbies can also help you get through days of mild pain. For the tougher days where you can’t seem to get on your feet, try to rest, perhaps relax in a bath, and then try to sleep through it as much as possible and know that the next day may be a lot better.