Chemo’s Side Effect #3: Procrastination

“Procrastination is the thief of time,” wrote Edward Young, and an Anglo-Saxon proverb predicts a solitary deathbed for the one who fails to grab life’s chances.

How is this relevant to chemo? Doing chemo buys time. You pay in present suffering for the chance at more life. Right?

But undergoing chemo is not like working out in order to get fit, or spending a grueling weekend collecting documents so you can get your taxes done on time. It can seem a lot more like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Because Ed was doing chemo—and in spite of the fact that it was never envisioned as a curative regimen—we could not start hospice care. On a deeper level, because we were doing chemo, we postponed discussing death and its implications at all: not simply because we couldn’t have hospice care yet, but because as long as Ed was being aggressively treated, there was a sort of pact that it was not yet time to confront the imminence of his death.

But the monsters don’t stop coming nearer because you shut your eyes.

Chemotherapy is meant to postpone death. But instead it can postpone preparing to die. If death ambushes you while you are trying to forestall it, then it might be said you’ve failed in the attempt to lay claim to your life—not because you are going to die after all, though that’s true, but because you never have the chance to lay claim to your own death.

This is a real loss. To lose the chance to think about mortality. To miss the last flight home, not just because chemo makes it hard to travel, but because chemo lets you pretend you’ll catch another flight later. To wait until it’s too late, as some people do, to say “goodbye” or “I love you” or “I’m sorry.” To never complete the practical tasks and unfinished business (does anyone else know where your passwords are?) that you have been putting off until After Chemo.

My husband didn’t have a “bucket list” of events and exploits to accomplish; he just wanted more of his useful, quiet, family-oriented life. Chemo encouraged him to think he might have it back for at least a little while. Focusing our gaze on that distant mirage, we walked through the last weeks of his life without recognizing them.

Chemotherapy: the side effects they don’t tell you about

Chemo is presented as having some unpleasant if usually manageable side effects, but the list is actually far longer and more insidious than the physical ones they tell you about. Not that those are trivial: counting pills and adjusting medications, weakened and sickened by poison, is a hell of a way to spend your last weeks on earth. Further, it is possible that the assault of the chemotherapy hastened Ed’s death. Certainly all the tumors but the original bladder tumor grew rapidly during treatment, and spread with vicious speed into organs that were still sound as a bell at the time of his diagnosis.

Setting those damages to one side, here are some other side effects that aren’t listed in the information sheets, and that no health care professional acknowledged, let alone tried to help us manage:

  • Misdirected fear
  • The trolley tracks of protocol
  • Procrastination: the thief of time
  • Confusion

I’ll take these one by one in the next posts.