A Cancer Patient's Guide to Chemo-101
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
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The tumor in my breast was a lot larger than the doctor thought-super, thanks for that! About a week after I got the news, I met with the oncologist to discuss treatment. The usual protocol for breast cancer is 8 rounds of chemo every two weeks. I had already had one of the drugs for this protocol to treat the Lymphoma I had when I was young, so I could not have it again because it could do even more serious damage to my heart. Instead, I was told that I would follow a different protocol and thus I had four rounds of chemo every three weeks. I had heard a lot of mixed things about chemo before I began it this time around, and that it has changed a lot since I had it last. Personally, I didn’t find that to be the case- I had many similar side-effects to the ones I had when I was young.
On the Wednesday of that week, I would meet with the oncology team for bloodwork and discuss any questions or concerns that I had. On Thursday, I would begin my treatment. I would be at the hospital for about 5 hours or so, depending on how busy the chemo suite was. The nurses there were lovely and made my time there tolerable. I would usually bring a book and my iPad so I could watch Netflix, but I would often find myself talking to my husband or mom. As I was receiving the drug Taxol, the nurses brought me icepacks to put on my fingers and toes to help prevent neuropathy. (Neuropathy is nerve damage and the concern was that it could damage feeling in my fingers and/or toes.) Keeping the ice on was horrible, but I tried to keep it on as long as I could.
I would feel very exhausted by the time I would get home, and would go straight to bed. The real fun would start on the Friday (the day after I received the chemo drugs) and would last up until the Monday of the following week. Typically, I experienced fatigue, nausea, upset stomach, acid indigestion, an awful taste in my mouth, and aches and pains all over my body, just to name a few of the delightful side-effects brought on by the chemo. The days after chemo were not fun at all and my husband and I would be at home all weekend together. I was basically in bed all the time and didn’t want to do a thing. If I couldn’t sleep (which was often), I was bored out of my mind and wished I could get out of the house, but knew I had no energy to even move. It was such a strange feeling. I had to remind myself that I would soon feel better and to try and be patient. The following week after chemo treatment, I had to go for an injection to increase my white blood counts. This injection would cause the worst bone pain I had ever felt, making me feel as though I was a very old woman. There were times when I could barely move and needed my husband to help me get around the house.
If I’m going to be completely honest, chemotherapy is awful and I wish it on no one. If you do have to go through chemo, I thought I could at least share some insights. Having gone through chemo twice, I have a few tips and advice that may be helpful for you or a loved one!
1) Drink lots of fluids
Some of the medication can cause dehydration so it’s important to stay hydrated. For me personally, when I’m dehydrated I usually get headaches, so water is so important. During chemo, a few days I had a very strange taste in my mouth, almost like a metal taste. I wasn’t always able to drink water because it tasted gross, so I would try to drink other fluids like herbal tea, chicken broth and even Gatorade or Gingerale (even though I know those aren’t super healthy choices, they kept me drinking fluids, which is the important thing).
2) Rest as much as you can
Again, straight up honesty here-- chemo kicks the complete crap out of you. It’s not only killing bad cells, but the good ones too and this definitely impacts how you feel. I felt the sickest the following 5-7 days after the chemo infusion day. On those days I didn’t want to do anything. Because I felt quite sick, it was best for me to take it easy and stay home. I tried not to leave my house, unless I really had to. On days that I felt good (in between treatments) I would still do the things I love but would try to take it easy as much as I could. I didn’t want to overdo it and make myself feel sick. I watched a ton of Netflix on days when I was home!!
3) Eat whatever the hell you want
This is probably not the best advice I’m giving. Healthy eating makes the most sense, especially during chemo, however I had a lot of nausea and didn’t always feel like eating certain foods. So when I was actually hungry, I would eat what I felt like eating. Eating something is better than eating nothing. So if I wanted pizza or a Harvey’s hamburger with fries, I would get it. This would also give me some joy in an otherwise crappy situation. Whatever I wanted, my husband would get it for me. He is honestly the best!
4) Take advantage of the days you feel good
If I wanted a night out with friends or my husband, I would usually plan it between treatments. I felt the best the week before my next chemo treatment day. I would try to do as much as I could on the days I was feeling good, because I knew I would probably be stuck at home once I had my next treatment. I really enjoyed making plans because I wanted to keep living my best life, and try to distract myself from what was going on. If for some reason I wasn’t feeling well, I knew I could just stay home and rest. My friends and family were really supportive of this, and totally understanding when I needed to reschedule.
5) Stay away from germs!!
Anytime I knew a friend or family member was sick, I would do my best to stay away from them. If I was near someone that was sick, I would wash my hands frequently and keep my distance. This helped a lot because I rarely caught the flu or any colds. I was already dealing with enough, I really didn’t need to get sick on top of everything I was going through. Also, I didn’t want any of my treatments to be delayed if I were to catch a virus or something. I wanted to stay on schedule as much as I could to finish my treatment on time. Thankfully, all went according to plan in this regard. I was completely crazy with hand washing, and I think it helped a lot!
6) Don’t be afraid to ask for help
This is the time in your life when you should ask your family and friends for help. If they offer, gladly accept. Fortunately, my family offered to help us a lot. They would help with cooking, taking me to appointments and would always come over for visits. Don’t try to be a superhero and do it all. This time is important for you to take care of yourself, so let others do the work whenever they can. After a few of my surgeries, I wasn’t able to vacuum, wash the floors or even do laundry (since the liquid detergent was too heavy for me to lift), so my husband took over with most of the household chores. I am so thankful he was able to help me. He wasn’t always happy doing it (how many people actually like to clean?), but knew he had to since I couldn’t do what I normally did around the house. Family and friends are great people to have help you during this time! Make sure to ask for what you need, because they might not know exactly how they can help.
7) Try not to take your anger and frustration out on others
Going through chemo is tough. The side effects are not fun and it can really knock you down. There were many days when I did not feel well, and honestly, I was very angry. I hated being stuck at home, not being able to work or do the regular things I usually could do. I would often find myself taking my anger out on my family, (of course, the ones who are always there for me- we always hurt the ones we love). But if you can, try to think before you speak. This can be tough and of course it’s okay to get frustrated, but try not to lash out on the ones who love you so much. If you do, remember to apologize when you’re feeling better. They just want to help.
8) Try to tie up all lose ends before your chemo begins
This might be different for a lot of people. I would often do a huge house clean before a round of chemo, do a big grocery shop and run any last minute errands. This would take a lot of stress off myself and I wouldn’t have to rely on others to help me with some of these tasks. I would go to chemo feeling pretty organized and would have the chance to just focus on myself and rest.
9) Remember, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel!
This is so hard to imagine, especially at the very beginning of your journey, but remind yourself there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. I encourage you to celebrate your milestones and be proud of yourself. Take one day at a time, and try not to get too ahead of yourself. The journey is a long and hard one, but take it one day at a time.
Remember, you are stronger than you think! You can do it! Just have faith and be patient. I hope these tips are helpful for you or anyone you know.