Getting out in public

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Lawson marching in the parade. Photo by Ashton Santema, editing/effects by Ken Santema.

Chemo is very hard on the body. It lowers the bodies immune system, which in turn means chemo patients have to be careful around anyone who is or might be sick. But that doesn’t mean cancer patients have to be cut completely off from society while going through chemo. In this post I will share my experiences of balancing going out in public and keeping illnesses at bay.

There are a lot of misconceptions about chemo in the general public. One misconception is that chemo completely wipes out the immune system. This isn’t true. Yes, chemo definitely brings the immune systems down to potentially dangerous levels. But it is not down to zero. If the immune system was brought that low nobody would survive chemo. Plus chemo patients are given drugs to help boost the immune system. TheĀ Neulasta shot is an example of a drug taken to boost the immune system. It is definitely possible, and encouraged, for chemo patients to get out and about.

Of course some people on chemo are unable to get out in public due to the side-effects of the drugs being taken. In my personal experience it is tough for me to get out during the first week of chemo due to extreme fatigue. It is likely my body will react the same each round of chemo, so it is unlikely I will plan to attend any events during those weeks. I try not to focus too much on what I might miss on those weeks; it is what it is.

According to my oncologist, between seven to fourteen days after chemo my immune system is at its weakest. But again the immune system isn’t down to zero. It is during this time my two younger sons were in the homecoming day parade at their school. My youngest Ashton was on the sixth grade float and my middle son Lawson was in the High School marching band. I did not want to miss the homecoming parade. As a precaution I wore a face-mask and carried hand sanitizer with me. The mask is meant to keep me from breathing germs in while around people, especially in crowds. Actually it worked to keep people away from me. People would see my mask and walk as far around me as possible. It really didn’t bother me at all. I was able to watch the parade. That really made my day. I love being a dad and seeing my two younger boys in the parade gave me a morale boost.

That evening my son Lawson played in the pep band for the football game. I went to this game taking the same precautions as earlier. One good thing about going to a football game is that the field is so big. My wife and I didn’t have to sit in the stands. We were able to sit by the fence on our lawn chairs. This reduced the number of people around me, and the potential germs, to a minimal.

Also during the last two weeks of my three-week chemo cycle I have gone into the school numerous times. My youngest son has a muscular condition he is being diagnosed for. As part of this condition he is in a wheelchair for two to three days a week. On those days I will help him get his books into and out of the school. When I enter the school I make sure I have my mask on. Some of the kids gave me weird looks at first. But now they don’t really seem to notice.

Another precaution I take while out in public is politely refusing to shake hands with people. I do carry hand sanitizer with me, and use it quite often. But I really don’t feel comfortable touching other people’s hands. I’ve seen too many people cough into their hands and I have no idea what germs they have been around. I briefly explain why I won’t shake hands and each time the other person has understood. Maybe I’m being too over-cautious. Maybe not.

Now there have been events I have chosen not to attend, even though I really wanted. About a week and a half into my treatment cycle there was a district meeting for the American Legion I really wanted to attend. The post I am a member of was hosting this meeting and it included a meal. I really desired to attend the meeting. But it would have been a lot of people in an enclosed area and I know at least some of them would have colds or other illnesses. The risk just didn’t seem worth it.

As a geek I had also planned to attend the SiouxperCon convention in Sioux Falls this weekend. For months I had been looking forward to attending. The convention has comics, gaming, wrestling, and everything a geek could want. But I didn’t think it would be smart for me to attend an event of this type while my immune system was questionable. There are simply too many people congregated in a convention type event. Plus I get really tired every afternoon and evening, meaning I most likely would not have enjoyed many of the scheduled events anyhow. Next year I do plan to attend however!

Missing SiouxperCon did mean I was able to watch my son Lawson in the NSU Gypsy Days parade however. It was cool to once again see him marching in the band. In the week since the homecoming day parade it was quite obvious they had done a lot of practicing. They sounded and looked so much better (not that they were bad the first time, but they definitely needed improvement). The picture in this post was taken by my youngest son Ashton during that parade. I think it is important to focus on these events I can attend instead of getting depressed about the public events I miss out on.

Hopefully any chemo patients reading this will understand they can go out in public. Certain precautions need to be made, but there is no reason to be completely cut off from society. I look forward to attending events for my sons and will continue to do so.

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