The 9 Unexpected Side Effects of Cancer That No One Tells You About


1. A tube coming out of my arm

The fourth time I had chemo, a team of nurses had to poke me about eight times before finding a vein. It was then that they concluded that all my good veins had been busted, and that I should have nurses slide a long tube into my arm, all the way to my heart. It’s called a PICC line, but in my angry journal entries and text messages I called it ArmTube. The tube cap dangled out of my arm like a penis, and random people on the street asked me what happened to my arm.

My mom had to “flush” the line every day, a.k.a. inject it with saline. Every time she did, I smelled something awful and salty. My parents said they couldn’t smell it at all and said I was insane. Later, the doctors told me that I was smelling the saline from inside my body.

Every time I took a shower, I had to put on a plastic sleeve that turned my showers into rain on a tin roof. Every Sunday, I had to drive 30 minutes each way to get the ArmTube bandage changed. Once, they put on the wrong bandage and I got a rash. After five months, the nurses pulled it out, and now I have a scar on my arm that feels like a nipple.

2. A farewell to blueberries

When chemo began, my oncologist told me to avoid all raw foods. I could only eat bananas and oranges (because they had skin) and other workarounds such as peeled apples and dried mangoes. These limits led to me losing my taste for every fruit I was still allowed to eat. So for four months, I ate microwaved enchiladas and told waiters to “take out the lettuce.” The latter resulted in a lot of puzzled looks. Once I told my mom that I was desperate for some blueberries, and my dad made her boil them. It was like the inside of a pie without the pie part.

Four months into treatment, I went to a different oncologist and he told me that the no-raw food rule was outdated, and that I could eat whatever I wanted.

3. I learned the meaning of the phrase “trigger warning”

Chemo gave me constant nausea in the first place, but things that reminded me of chemo made it so much worse. One of the drugs they gave me was a bright red liquid, so any colored liquid was a trigger. I used to think poop was gross, and then pee became grosser. My brother’s soccer practice Gatorade was repulsive. My friend, trying to cheer me up and take my mind off the cancer, sent me a photo of Jello shots. I nearly threw up.

More things I can’t stand because of chemo classical conditioning: the smell of cleaning products, the movies “Fargo” and “Children of Men,” and potato chips.

4. I was a freaking celebrity

All the emails, texts and cards made me realize how many people I knew (at least 30, apparently), and then realized I liked it better when I had two friends. I also received gifts from people I had never met, but had heard I was on chemo thanks to my parents telling just about everyone. One of the gifts was a small plastic block designed to look like a stone relief. There were birds carved into it with the word “HOPE” written below. It’s in my garage somewhere, still managing to haunt my dreams.

5. You can’t make friends with someone just because they had cancer

I got the phone numbers of a girl from school and a girl from the chemo lounge. They were my exact age and had my exact disease (Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, in case you were wondering). I didn’t click with them at all, and our messages fizzled out within days.

I went to a local “Young people’s cancer support group,” and everyone there was 40. My usual support group for relatives of chronic gamblers wasn’t helpful either. Their reactions amounted to an “Oh.” Then all the old people at the meeting got into a fight with a newcomer to the meeting, accusing her of being an attention whore because she was a trans woman.

My main emotional support ended up being a guy I met online. I bought a wig, sent him photos, and asked him to be my boyfriend. He flew to see me and watched my mom flush my PICC line a total of seven times. Insert Augustus Waters reference here. I don’t really like John Green, though, and I dislike the book The Fault in Our Stars even more after having had cancer. Not sorry.

6. Human hair wigs cost about $1,300

Locks of Love donations…I have no idea where those go. Not to me, that’s for sure.

7. Some people actually think that chemo is a conspiracy

One woman at the support group for relatives of chronic gamblers told me to ditch chemo and try energy healing. “It cured my leukemia 20 years ago!” she exclaimed. I told my oncologist and he replied, “Either her leukemia was a misdiagnosis or it’s latent, and it’ll come back and get her pretty soon.”

Another individual, a notorious health freak in my town, told me in person how sorry he was about my illness. According to my sister, however, he shit all over chemo right after I left the room. To paraphrase:

“Chemotherapy is just a thing doctors keep going to make money, ‘cause it’s a 65 billion dollar industry. The actual cure is a clean diet of fruits and vegetables. The big clinic for it is in Mexico, and it has to be across the border because the government keeps them from calling their regimen ‘medicine.’ Which is totally is.”

8. Stupidity

Chemo is like getting drunk without the fun. The nausea is a side effect everyone knows about, but chemo also makes you dumb and ADHD as fuck. I listened to three 5-hour long audiobooks in the 8-month course of Cancer Time, and each took me about a month.

One chemo day, I sort of lost my mind and made an entire blog with 15 posts. I found online people with obscure fetishes and emailed them, asking to do interviews. Then I licked a plate in front of the internet boyfriend. Another chemo day, I listened to a song that later became one of my favorite songs ever (this little sweetheart), and I completely forgot I had heard it. I only know that I listened to it on that day because I had an entire text conversation about the song–which I also have no memory of.

9. Chemo permanently cured my acne

I’ve been off chemo for 7 months, and I’ve only had a couple tiny zits in that entire time period. Whereas before, I was something like a pizza face, especially on my upper lip. It’s a nice change, but chemo probably isn’t worth it. Apparently it permanently damaged my lungs, and I’ll never be able to go into space. You win some, you lose some.