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Simple Tips For Starting Cancer Treatment

It's natural to feel overwhelmed with a cancer diagnosis. Grab back a little security by knowing what to expect
PUBLISHED July 19, 2017
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
“I’m sorry. It’s cancer.”

Hearing those words isn’t easy. Some of us come out fists raised and ready to fight, others withdraw with fear and tears. Maybe you’ve experienced a combination of these and more. After my diagnosis, I experienced so many emotions in such rapid successions, swinging wildly back and forth between all of them, that I was worn out from psychological stress before any real treatment had even started.

If you’re new to cancer treatment, or seeking to help someone you love regain a sense of control over what’s happening, I have some practical suggestions that could help. I’m definitely not going to say it will ever be easy, but easier? Yes. Use one, use them all, take what works now and make it better.

Find the patient navigator or nurse navigator or resource at your place of treatment who can help you better understand what your treatment will be like. Someone who’s “been there” is nice, but it isn’t mandatory. What you want is the person at the hospital or clinic who can prepare you for what’s about to happen without the added pressure of making sure you’re asking the right questions of your oncologist. Yes, talk to the oncologist (for sure!) but a more low-key conversation can help calm nerves and also bring a sense of security because you know better what to expect.

Take that tour of the chemotherapy center if you’ll be receiving that type of treatment. Some places have private rooms or privacy screens/curtains while others are much more open. Seeing with your own eyes that you may be sitting quite close to another patient beats being surprised on your first day. A tour can also help you see what you might want to bring with you. At my hospital, each chair has a TV screen that doesn’t have a connection for headphones. That means I could be exhausted and wanting quiet yet be sitting next to someone watching “The Price Is Right.” Dreading chemo day is a given; I make it better for myself by bringing earbuds and music on my phone. Maybe the room is surprisingly cold—do all the patients have multiple blankets or sweaters? There are clues for what it’s like that you’ll really only notice if you’re walking through yourself.

Keep a small snack in your purse and car. I can only speak for myself on this one, but when I leave the hospital after chemotherapy, I am wiped out from drugs, emotional stress and plain old garden-variety fatigue. Taking a moment to pause, reflect and pray while eating something small (a bag of crackers, a handful of nuts) and a bottle of water before I start back on the road or to work makes a huge difference in how the rest of the day goes. 

Treatment delays are commonplace. Doctors and nurses know this happens, and so should you. When there is something going on with you physically, such as low blood counts or pain, the oncologist could postpone treatment for a period of time until the treatment will be safer, more effective and better tolerated by you. Still, who wouldn’t worry when there’s an unexpected change treatment change? Talk to your team about why treatment is being postponed and ask if there’s anything you could do to help shorten the length of the delay. Often there won’t be anything you can do other than wait for your body to be ready. 

Be prepared for hurt where you wouldn’t expect it, even from people you love. If there’s ever a time when thin skin is both totally expected—hey! I could die—and totally ignored by many well-meaning people, it’s when there’s a serious illness in the house. I’m not going to suggest getting a thick-skin or “putting on the big-girl panties” (ugh), but I will suggest that as someone undergoing cancer treatment, you are in a very vulnerable spot. Thin-skin and hurt emotions are perfectly acceptable. You can tell someone who’s said or done something hurtful to back off or explain what the problem is, but I find that almost impossible. My preparation now is to not comment on their behavior but to re-state how I feel. I’m not going to spend my precious time trying to correct someone else’s behavior, but I can be upfront about how I am actually doing and maybe that’ll help them understand a little better.

A second opinion is expected, so try not to feel like you are being disrespectful of your doctor if you seek one out. There is a standard of care that doctors follow but there are preferences that each doctor or hospital has and it is worth the time to seek out an additional opinion. These days, the patient’s voice is an important part of medical care—use it.
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