I’ve had a history of low iron and have been anemic on and off my entire adult life. It’s just something I’ve always “dealt with,” especially “that time” of the month. Monthly periods would completely wipe me out. I’ve always eaten a healthy, iron-rich diet and just viewed this as “part of being a woman.”
Fast forward to last April – the month my world got turned upside down. Having recently reached the 40-year-old milestone, I went for my first preventive mammogram screening. Every young mom’s worst nightmare soon followed: I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Needless to say, a lot of “stuff” happened last year – a lot of doctor’s visits and treatments and surgery. I had a bilateral mastectomy and am proud to say that, largely because the cancer was caught so early, I am in remission.
What does this have to do with iron? I didn’t know this initially, but I now understand that cancer patients are at an especially high risk of having iron deficiency anemia. I was a classic case but had to figure it out on my own.
I began feeling the effects of the anemia after just one month of therapy. I couldn’t drag myself out of bed and felt an overwhelming feeling of fatigue – fatigue that was on par if not worse than the fatigue I felt when I was recovering from my surgery. The next month, I was even worse. I had labored breathing and horrible headaches. I do a lot of yoga and even the simplest poses caused me to become short of breath. I was to the point of lying in bed at 7:30 at night. I couldn’t even focus on reading a magazine. I was cold. I just didn’t feel right.
I called my OBGYN, and he attributed these symptoms to my anemia but didn’t give me any recommendations beyond taking prescription oral iron three times a day and eating iron-rich foods. I had a very hard time tolerating the oral iron and would often give up. I continued to eat very healthfully, but I could eat 6 pounds of spinach and my symptoms were still there. It was time to take matters into my own hands. I talked to some doctors and did some research. I refused to go through the next 10 years in a haze. I have a 4 year old and a 6 year old. I want to focus on them – and not sleep through their childhood.
My research led me to a hematologist who put together a plan tailored to me and my needs. Today, I am a different person. I am more active with my children and am now embracing the next decade of my life.
There is a huge lack of education about iron deficiency anemia – among both health care providers and patients. We need to bridge the gap so that no one suffers unnecessarily. I wish I knew more about the disease before I got my cancer diagnosis and will do whatever it takes to make sure that other people going through what I went through know that help is available. You don’t need to go through life feeling like the “walking dead.”