Many of the symptoms I experienced during my six months and six cycles of chemotherapy occurred only later, after the accumulation of chemo in my wasting body. For example, the dying cells in my mouth and on my tongue didn’t happen until about halfway through my treatment. It took a few cycles of killing fast-growing cells before I felt the unbearable effects.
But the chills began after the first cycle and continued for months, even after my cancer was gone. I was always freezing, even in the house with the thermostat set higher than usual (much to my family’s chagrin). I walked around wearing flannel shirts or sweaters beneath a cardigan. I’d have worn a parka if I had one. My constant refrain for months was, “Is it just me, or is it freezing in here?” It was just me. I don’t know why the body feels chills when it is sick. I’m sure there’s a biological reason. But what I do know is that I was always freezing . . . and I’m from Alaska! I know cold. I grew up walking to school in -60F weather. The slightest breeze would make the temperature plummet even further. I could tell you horror stories about stupid boys sticking their tongues to metal flag poles and garbage dumpsters. In college ROTC, I completed an Arctic Survival Course. As a cautionary, instructors showed us ghastly photographs of fingers and toes and other body parts that had been frozen solid. The called them “blebs.”
(Photo of Corporal John Smelcer, Arctic Survival Training,
Eielson Air Force Base, 1981)
The only times I felt truly warm was sitting in a sauna. Almost every night, I went to my local YMCA to sit in the 170F sauna for half an hour or so. It was the only time I ever felt warm. And my increased body heat would stay with me for an hour or so after I got home, thawing my permafrosted body, which reminded me of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” the famous Alaskan poem, written by Robert Service back during the Gold Rush of Jack London fame. In fact, my experience of being cold all the time reminded me so much of the character in the poem, that I wrote a poem about it, which is included in my new poetry book, Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor (now available online):
THE CREMATION OF SAM MCGEE & ME
After the third chemo cycle, I was freezing all the time.
I piled under blankets, took saunas at the YMCA,
but 170 degrees just wasn’t hot enough to thaw me.
I was so cold that during Thanksgiving in Tennessee, I swear
I thought about crawling into the oven with the turkey to get warm.
The cozy thought reminded me of a poem by Robert Service,
the famous Gold Rush poet who wrote, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,”
about a fella’ from Tennessee who was cremated
in a red-hot woodstove after freezing to death in the Yukon.
As the poem goes, after a while, his fellow miner opened the door:
“There sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
and he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said,
“Please close that door. It’s fine in here,
but I greatly fearyou’ll let in the cold and storm.
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
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