Taking My Own Advice: Not So Easy

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Having been through the active treatment phase of breast cancer 6 years ago, I’m just full of good advice for others going through it now. How to slog your way through chemo – did I remember to tell you about chewing ice as the needle goes in? What to wear for radiation. Hint: NOT the hospital johnny. And did you know that not just your head, but your neck will be cold after you lose your hair? All these little bits and pieces of knowledge, these war stories that only a veteran can tell. I’m really good at giving advice. Not so good at taking it.

    I’ve had a headache for three weeks. Not a bad one; just a constant, low-grade headache. I wake up in the morning, and there it is, the top of my head saying “Hey, remember me? I hurt.” I pop some ibuprofen; it recedes. Mid-afternoon, it starts to nag again, like my mom monotonously telling me to comb my hair, do my homework, wash the dishes… “Still here. Still hurting.” Reluctantly, I take some more ibuprofen.

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    I’m not a pill person, despite the 10 I take daily: multivitamins, vitamin C, calcium (for bone loss), Arimidex, magnesium (for Arimidex side effects), fish oil… if you’re a postmenopausal breast cancer survivor like me, you know the routine: we’re trying to combat not just the residue of cancer, but the effects of aging and hormone changes. Women used to take HRT (hormone replacement therapy) for this stuff, but that was before HRT was shown to cause – you got it, breast cancer. Round and round we go.

    Coincidentally, I had a regular 6-month checkup with my oncologist last week. The cancer center I go to is also a teaching hospital; he had a young resident with him. When Dr. Schwartz asked how things were going, I told him about this long-drawn-out headache, and the resident, eyes lighting up, immediately jumped in. “Have you noticed vision changes? Dizziness?” Clearly, he found himself with a juicy symptom to sink his teeth into.


    Dr. Schwartz, a veteran of the breast cancer wars, was more discreet. “Well, it’s highly unlikely that it could be anything, really; I see lots of middle-aged women with headaches, and they’re due to lots of different causes. Still, let’s get a picture taken of your head, OK?” He called his scheduler, and they set me up for a brain MRI this Friday.

    I’m not worried; not really. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. If one of you wrote a SharePost saying you had a headache-induced brain MRI scheduled, I’d post a comment reassuring you that it was probably stress, the doctor was being ultra-careful, only x percentage of headaches are due to brain tumors and a mere x percentage of women with breast cancer get brain metastases… but right now, I can’t seem to take my own advice.


    Why do I, a non-headache person, suddenly get a 3-week headache? Pre-cancer, I would have been thinking holiday stress, an allergy, maybe a sinus thing. Now – well, you know what keeps rearing its ugly head.

    That’s the thing about cancer. Emotionally, “HAVE cancer” never really becomes “HAD cancer.” Like this headache quietly pounding away, there’s always that nagging voice, buried deep, deep inside, insidiously whispering: “Here I am again. I’m back. And this time I’m going to get you.”

  • Tell me – how do I stop listening?

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Published On: November 26, 2007