Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
After a cancer diagnosis, are we more afraid of our fears of chemo or the chemo itself? This survivor walks through three common chemo fears and what her experiences were like with them.
My biggest fear of cancer, besides being diagnosed with it (and since that already happened), was the chemo itself. What would happen to me when chemo was injected? How would it feel in my body? What would I look like without hair? I was terrified of chemo, plain and simple. I had worked myself up to a fear like no other when it came to thinking about my first chemo. Cancer is like that. It leaves a person constantly wondering what will happen next. The short of the story is that I made it through my chemo and seven years later, I still think about it. I’d honestly say it was not as bad as I had worked it out in my head to be. I can also say that I hope I never have to go through it again. Let’s face it, it was no picnic.
I often see comments from the newly diagnosed asking those with experience to talk about chemo and tell them what it was like. I think it is one of the big wonders of those who are just getting started on their cancer journey. I recently saw comments from someone wondering if she would be able to go through chemo and had just about convinced herself she couldn’t do it. My immediate thought was to just say, “well of course you can make it through chemo. What choice do we have after diagnosis if that is what our medical team says is best?” However, I know that is not necessarily the most helpful set of words to give to someone who is just getting started.
How does one get past the fears of chemo? For those of us that have gone through it, we can give tips, tricks and advice all day about what worked for us to get through chemo. It may help some. It may scare others. It may do nothing for many. My thought is this: let’s breakdown some of the fears that build up before we even see our first bag of chemo drip.
FEAR #1 — The thought of losing your hair is overwhelming.
Yep, losing your hair is not fun. It’s not a cultural norm to walk around with no hair. To me, I felt like going bald officially defined me as a cancer patient. Losing my hair was much more scary than chemo to me. Then of course, I felt super vain. Why should I care about my hair when I have cancer that could potentially kill me? Hair should be the least of my concerns. None of that mattered in my mind at the time. It was just another thing cancer was taking. So, I took control of what little I could control, and I decided when I was going to lose it. I shaved it off before one strand could fall, and that empowered me to get through the loss. I wore scarves, wigs and hats, and after a few awkward moments here and there, losing my hair was not the end of the world. Showers were easier and getting ready in the morning took no time. Sure, I wished I had my hair, but things were OK without it.
FEAR #2 — Chemo would keep me consistently sick to my stomach.
I cannot speak for everyone in this regard, but I can say that I pretty much never got sick with chemo. I was surprised by how much anti-nausea meds I received. Whatever my doctors did seemed to work, and vomiting and nausea were not frequent in my life during chemo. Certain foods tasted different and I lost my interest in some of my favorites, but those tastes grew back over time. I didn’t lose much weight and aside from being tired and losing energy a bit more quickly, I was OK.
FEAR #3 — Chemo will hurt.
I thought chemo would be uncomfortable and potentially hurt. I guess I didn’t know what to expect. It’s none of the above. Getting chemo injected is pretty boring in my eyes. You sit in a chair for hours as the drugs drip in. That’s about it. You might feel tired and a little off once all is injected but at least for me, that was about it. I think I felt more from the steroids than the chemo itself. Each treatment affected me a little more in that I would just get consistently more tired and weak, but nothing ever hurt.
Outside of the cancer community, most people don’t talk about chemo and what it is like. Everything we tend to know about it comes from TV, movies or stories from others. Until you experience it yourself, you have no idea what to expect. Again, I wished I never had to have it and hope I never do again. But I will say, my mind had made it much worse than it ever was for me. I was bald. I was tired and weak near the end of treatment. I was grateful when it was over. However, the fears I had never came to fruition. A lot of that comes from mindset. A lot of that comes from just experiencing it. If you are diagnosed with cancer and the doctors say it’s part of your treatment protocol, remind yourself how strong you are. Don’t question if you can do it? Know you can. You have already heard the words “you have cancer.” The worst is already out there. Telling yourself you CAN make it through chemo is one of the things in this journey we can control.