Q: In 2005 I had to have my big toe removed because of cancer. I am cancer-free now. My problem is that I am always cold. I go to the YMCA four to five times a week to work in the gym and walk in the water from 35 to 40 minutes at a time. My cancer doctor and local physician have no idea why I can’t get warm, so if you have any helpful hints, please advise me.
A: There are several reasons why a person can feel cold. The most common is exposure to low temperatures. Beyond that a compromised immune system such as from certain medications, medication side effects, weight loss, a low body fat percentage and more may be to blame. There are also chills to take into consideration. Chills are caused by the process of rapid muscle contraction and relaxation and most often occur because of exposure to cold or because of a medical condition that could produce a fever. This is different from feeling cold in that chills occur and resolve quickly whereas simply feeling cold can last for extended periods of time. Cancer treatment can cause weight loss which can cause both chills and a feeling of being cold.
By definition, a sign is a signal that can be visually seen or heard by someone nearby. Examples are rapid breath sounds that cause the chest to rise and fall, blue lips, shivering, or abnormal lung sounds heard by a physician through a stethoscope. A symptom, on the other hand, is often only observed by the patient and may include aches, pains, or weakness. The cancer you had in 2005 could have caused both signs and symptoms that resulted, in part, in the chills you are now experiencing. As you can see, signs and symptoms are important, as they can assist a physician in ordering appropriate testing and making a clear diagnosis. Based on your history, your personal physician might determine you simply have a low-grade infection and by ordering laboratory testing or X-rays, he or she can rule out a number of other possibilities of lesser consequence.
You are fortunate still to remain cancer-free some seven years later. People must take responsibility for their bodies and that includes noting changes and sharing concerns with a physician. While it might appear frightening not knowing what he or she will say, the patient may have a condition that is totally benign and unrelated to cancer. If not, he or she will have the advantage of early detection which works in their favor.
I’m going to diversify a little here to give a better overall view. Cancer most often causes weight loss. When a person loses appreciable weight without trying, it’s time for a visit to a primary care physician. Unexplained weight loss refers to 10 or more pounds. Pain can be an early symptom of bone or testicular cancer. Headaches that just don’t go away could be caused by a brain tumor. Back pain might be indicative of colon or ovarian cancer. Excessive hair growth and changes of the skin (other than those related to aging) might be observed and could be the first signs of cancer. Fatigue that persists despite adequate rest might be linked with leukemia. White patches inside the mouth might be indicative of leukoplakia, a precancerous condition caused by tobacco use. Changes in bowel habits could be indicative of colon, bladder or prostate cancer. And, there’s the breast or testicular mass that can be felt on palpation.
I recommend you make an appointment with your doctor and explain you are always cold. If you haven’t had routine lab testing done recently, it might be time to see if you have any signs of anemia, thyroid/vitamin/mineral imbalances or other irregularities that can be easily corrected. Then put on an extra sweater and some warm socks. By all means, continue your excellent exercise regimen. Include a healthful diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish high in omega 3 oils and lean cuts of meat. Good luck.