{03} Chemotherapy

If the words cancer and mastectomy are feared, chemotherapy probably tops them all.

Where do I begin…
a) It was easier than I expected.

b) It was not scary like you see in the movies, but I also respect the fact that there’s still some heavy in-patient chemo administered for other types of cancers.

c) I went in for an IV infusion once every 3 weeks for a total of 4 times.  Out of those 3 weeks, I was sprawled out on the couch, zoning in front of the tv for only 3 of the days.  During my 3 “down days” I still had the energy and motivation to shower and get dressed and usually take a short, slow walk around the block.  The other 17+/- days were spent doing pretty normal things and people would not have guessed my circumstances.  I was tired and took naps, but you can muscle through the day if you have work and family obligations.  Many I know kept on working and the distraction helped them, which I applaud, however, I chose to forgo work and spent my time writing, walking and taking a painting class instead.  Do what is best for you and be sure to let your friends and family help you!

d) For your infusion, dress in comfy sweats, always bring along a driver/companion and some entertainment such as a DVD player, book or knitting project.  You’ll be there for up to 5 hours!

e) What is reassuring is that once you go through the first round, you can pretty much expect the same pattern of fatigue and symptoms for the others.  So, once I knew what it was like, I could make social plans.  “No, can’t do Thursday, but Sunday is good for me!”

f) Hair loss is a traumatic aspect of chemo and it will occur.  You’ll be bombarded with do-gooders trying to encourage you about their Aunt Tilda who went through chemo and didn’t lose her hair, but at this technological stage, all of the chemo drugs used specifically for BC has that side effect.  And just like clockwork, the head of hair will fall out near 15-18 days after your first infusion, so be ready with some cute hats, scarves or wigs.  The bonus is you’ll have the smoothest armpits and legs and the best Brazilian bikini wax ever!  And the women that were on this same drug regimen as me experienced the same eyebrow/eyelash pattern; they pretty much stay put all through treatment, but then about 4-6 weeks after the last infusion they start falling out too.  So don’t be surprised either way.   They come back quickly.

g) You should not experience nausea because the doctors and pharmacists will load you up with a ridiculous array of anti-nausea meds.  I had read terrible barfing stories on BC forums that completely frightened me, but I later learned through experience and from the experts that it can be managed very well and it should not occur.

h) At-home shots are sometimes required for a short while after each infusion session to help regenerate the white blood cells that were killed off by the chemo. The nurse will train you in self-administration injections or train a family member.  Our nurse was awesome and she allowed my hubby to practice by injecting a pillow.  Having never held a needle, my husband was nervous, but after the first one they got easy and were quick and he thought nothing of it.  The needle is baby small and it goes into a pinch of fat.  Trust me, I still didn’t look forward to them, but you just learn to get it over with.  He’d give them to me in the kitchen and minutes later we’d be discussing what to cook for dinner.  I have one BC friend that had her ex-husband give them each day and another BC friend with two teen daughters who would fight over “who gets to jab mom!”
The most difficult aspect of the shots is the potential side effects of bone pain.  The drug unnaturally stimulates the bone marrow to produce white cells so there can be mild to severe bone pain that may last a couple days.  It feels just like growing pains when we were kids.  I experienced the worst pain during my first round, but I found that a strong Tylenol would keep it at bay and then I had little pain for the other rounds.

i) Many have asked me, “What’s the worst side effect of chemo?” and I find the question impossible to answer because each symptom at the time is difficult.  But on the flip side it is all manageable with some humor and over the counter drugs.  Here are some of the common complaints from my fellow BC friends and me.
Depression during the down days, ridiculous constipation (take a stool softener!!!), the complete opposite of constipation, burping, farting, heartburn, bloating, weird mouth texture, lack of appetite for virtually everything, new food cravings, spacey, low energy…It all sucks, but it’s TEMPORARY so try to focus on that aspect.

j) If you’re having any trouble, with anything, call your doctor or nurse!  They always have the answer or at the very least can reassure you that the said symptom is typical.

k) The entire digestive tract takes a beating during chemo, so one recommendation is to go to your local health food store or holistic pharmacy and purchase ‘live probiotics’.  Generally there are many kinds, so talk to an expert and explain to them that you’re going through chemo.  They’ll lead you to the good stuff, which is generally refrigerated.  Probiotics are the good bacteria/cultures/enzymes, which have been severely hindered by the chemo so it’s important to replace them.  (p.s.  Yogurt does not contain enough cultures to even begin to replenish what you need)  Always speak with your oncologist before starting something, but I’ve never heard any objections about this.

l) There’s debate whether it’s wise to take anti-oxidant drinks or vitamins during chemo and frankly I was shocked when it was strongly advised that I discontinue my vitamin routine for this 12+ week treatment, but I decided to trust my doctor’s advice.  My meals were not that healthy, mostly because the only thing I craved were eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches and cream of wheat.  Frankly, I say just eat what you want for this short time and then when treatment is over, than you can begin a new healthy regimen.

m) Among the other perks Decadron is yet another.  It’s a steroid type pill taken for a short duration (that you may or may not need to take) which helps to counter balance the water weight that the chemo induces.  It can make you feel energized and sometimes insanely agitated.  I thought something was wrong with me until I started comparing notes with others.  It’s not mentioned much but temporary rage or feelings of massive annoyance for no reason is a possible side effect; luckily it lasts for just a short time, perhaps a day or so, and we just made it a joke in my BC group about our Decadron stories.

n) Weight gain.  When I read this it completely depressed me.  I was going to go bald and gain weight!?!  Well, yes, probably.  My appetite diminished by 50%, but my sedentary ways increased by about 1,000%, plus the chemicals add water weight, so it’s nearly impossible to avoid.  Just buy some cute sweats and try to remember it’s only temporary.  By the time I was done with chemo, I gained 10 pounds, but I started walking and walking and walking and now I’m even more fit and lighter than when I began chemo, so there’s light at the end of the tunnel.  Progress took longer than normal, but I stuck with it!

o) When this treatment stage is all said and done, I’m certain you’ll come out feeling like a warrior!  It’s a hard battle, but you’re strong, and you’ll feel victorious!!  Just remember to laugh at the levels of ridiculousness and take some time every now and then for a good cleansing cry.

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