I wasn’t scared of the painful side effects from surgery.
I wasn’t scared of fatigue and emotional drain from a packed schedule of cancer doctor appointments.
I wasn’t scared of humongous machines filled with radiation.
And I wasn’t scared of chemotherapy … I was petrified.
When I was first diagnosed, I only knew a few people who went through cancer treatment. And I didn’t know much about their experiences, so I really had no idea what to expect. I feared the worst when I was told I needed chemo; my stomach sank and anxiety filled my chest. I imaged myself regularly hugging a toilet, unable to leave the house and participate in life for 16 weeks of treatment. But this wasn’t my experience at all. In fact, my first chemo treatment was just me, my husband, two nurses and an IV.
This initial treatment was so underwhelming. My first Adriamycin/Cytoxan chemo infusion took less than two hours. About half way through the appointment, I felt pressure in my sinuses, which I coined my “wasabi nose.” It wasn’t painful, outside of the pricks used to insert the IV. I went home tired. Throughout the day my energy level declined, I felt a bit fatigued and queasy. But the next day, I felt ok. Not 100%, still foggy, jittery and a little sluggish, but decent.
My doctors told me the first cycle would replicate itself through the rest of the treatment, so I felt relieved that I actually could manage most of my life even while undergoing treatment. Nausea could be controlled by medication. I also stocked up on ginger-ale and drops, as well as green olives to help with the queasiness. And the metal tasting dry mouth went away within a few weeks.
During this time, I just tried to eat bland foods (whole-wheat pastas and breads) that wouldn’t upset my stomach or taste buds. I often nourished my body with wholesome foods, too. My body craved blueberries and healthy foods, just like it did years later when I was pregnant.
I felt energized after eating a plant-filled meal and also more balanced after a short walk or exercise session on the elliptical. It became my ritual to get on the elliptical for 20 minutes the morning of my chemo treatments. My doctors were in awe of how well I did with the infusions and attributed some of that to my regular exercise.
The hardest part about chemotherapy was losing my hair. I was prepared for this to be taxing, but just didn’t know how it would manifest. I was somewhat ready to lose it, but never fully accepted that I would. It occurred two weeks to the day that I started treatment, just as the doctors promised. I cried a lot over it, both the terrified tears as well as the ones that come from laughing hysterically.
The change in appearance was drastic and was accompanied by a whole range of emotions. Of course, I was thrilled to be killing the cancer, but I was also fearful that I wouldn’t be attractive to my husband. Seeing myself bald, I noticed my big eyes and round head and for one moment I thought I looked like Demi Moore in GI Jane. What no one told me was that even after the hair starts growing back, it was painful to see the stubble buzzed hair and pixie cuts. It was a constant reminder that I had been sick.
All this “icky-ness” from nausea to mental stress I called “cancer normal.” I knew it was ok to mourn my old look and occasionally feel blue. So, I did. But then, I found ways to make myself feel better and beautiful. Chemo parties during my IV infusions with magazines, makeup and music made the appointments laughable. Expensive scarves and new cozy pajamas helped me feel cute. When my hair started growing back in, I bought hair barrettes and accessories to accentuate my new look. I’m not going to say that chemotherapy was easy, because it wasn’t. I’m also well aware that everyone’s experiences with cancer treatments are different, so just because my side effects were mild, doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard, or that others will be like mine. But I can say that having to go through chemotherapy was devastating, but we were not devastated.
I chose to surround myself by positive friends and survivors that focused not on being sick rather on being well. Below are some of our tips on what made life a little easier during chemotherapy. Thanks to SJ and KS for their input.
1. Wear fun scarves: “Get some awesome scarves for days you do not want to wear a wig. Buy a Hermes or high-end brand…this is your best excuse to splurge.” -SJ, New York
2. Listen to your body and take it easy: “Days 1 and 2 after chemo I was hopped up on steroids so had tons of energy. But Days 3 and 4 was a complete crash. Be prepared for that and let your body rest. I would sleep for 16 hours those days because that is what my body needed to heal.” -SJ, New York
3. Stay active: “It was easy to stay in bed for days because I was lethargic from the drugs. But, I always felt better after a brisk walk. The nurses always told me to try for 30-minutes of exercise because it lessens the joint pains and fatigue of side effects.” -CFS, Connecticut
4. Create a chemo-staycation: “Long appointments and treatments are physically and mentally draining, so I hibernated at home when I could. We created date nights in our house, watched TV marathons often and read a lot of magazines together. I’m usually very social so this time-out from the public was very healing.” -CFS, Connecticut
5. Don’t be scared to call your doc: “If you have any weird pain or questions about side effects, call your doctor. It’s their job and they have on-call services for this reason. Call daily, weekly or whenever you are legitimately concerned, if you are polite and thoughtful, the doctors will understand.” –KS, Connecticut
6. Attend a cancer seminar/event or two through the hospital: Look Good Feel Better hosts makeup sessions (with free products) or Integrative/Complimentary services departments often provide massages, Reiki, yoga and meditation for patients and their families. – All
7. Wear makeup daily: “I wore makeup daily when going through chemo and I always felt better with it. I even did a makeover day at Bloomingdales with one of my best friends. It was really fun and uplifting.” -SJ, New York
8. Cut your hair and shave your head: “When the first few strands started to fall, my hair started thinning quickly. It saddened and scared me, so we had some fun. I had a friend cut my hair into different styles, so I could see what it looked like. I left it in the pixie cut for a few days, then had my husband shave it all. We laughed and cried, but ultimately had some fun with it.” – CFS, Connecticut
9. Eat what feels right: If you can stomach healthy foods, do it. If the metallic taste is overbearing, try eating sour and spicy foods. Chinese and Indian dishes can easily provide bread-y carbs with hot sauces. – All
10. Take photos: “I was glowing with confidence from being a survivor and am thankful that I got photos to preserve this time. I also did a photo shoot when my hair grew back. While I never would have been so bold to have a pixie cut, I felt beautiful with short hair.” – SJ, New York
Do you have any tips or stories for chemo patients?
Some of our favorite, easy tools during chemotherapy. For more thoughtful ideas, gestures and gifts for someone going through chemotherapy or another hardship, check out our post dedicated to this information.
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