Chemotherapy 101


Everyone's chemotherapy experience is unique.

I wrote my own chemo class. I am happy to share, but truly, if you have a cancer diagnosis, you will “get” to write your own. It is a little like childbirth. No two deliveries are the same. Some experienced moms tell their stories of long hours of horrible exhausting painful labor. This experienced mom (me) tells pregnant women her stories just because of those other moms—four hours for my first child, and two hours for my second child. Childbirth for me wasn’t horrific; it was intensely painful for a fairly brief period of time. It was a little like running a sprint. Now let’s talk about chemotherapy.

Here was my experience. I had chemotherapy for my breast cancer. I had an invasive ductal carcinoma that was stage 1, grade 2, 0.7 cm tumor, ER+/PR+/HER2- and no lymph nodes involved, but I had a high enough Oncotype DX test score at a young enough age for getting cancer that chemotherapy became part of my treatment plan.

Chemotherapy is a marathon. It is multiple treatments over multiple periods of time. Each person’s cancer, body, chemotherapy drugs and reactions can be unique, but I will say that endurance and patience and following the doctors’ instructions are helpful. It can be a marathon physically and mentally and emotionally, and, by the way, patience and endurance are not my strong suits.

Here is what I wish I had known going into the chemotherapy process from a mental and emotional perspective:

Sleep disruption: I was given steroids before, during and after each chemotherapy session. Those steroids made sleep virtually impossible for several days around each chemotherapy treatment. I got to work on my patience. I learned to lie awake relaxed for the night and to consider just getting up and doing something. Both are valid options and accepting them may make the experience of little to no sleep for several nights a little less emotionally upsetting.

Food: I never threw up with chemotherapy. Who knew that would happen? I had always had a nervous stomach with a tendency to throw up when I was overly upset or worried, especially as a kid before giving a speech in front of the class, but nervous, worried me didn’t throw up during chemotherapy. I did feel a little nauseated a couple times—usually when I got a little too adventurous with my eating. I learned to eat small frequent meals of healthful foods. Keeping my stomach calm and happy helped me to stay calmer and happier too.

Energy: Energy during chemotherapy was sporadic at best. I cut back on my exercise when I needed to, and I learned to really listen to my body (listening to my body had never been one of my talents before cancer). One friend who had chemotherapy many years before me explained it this way: She said it is like you are now being handed a limited number of quarters each day to spend—choose carefully what you will spend them on because when they are gone, they are gone. The chemotherapy marathon is about learning to prioritize, and to stop and to rest when your energy is gone. When I didn’t listen to my body, I would find myself feeling like I was suddenly out on a tightrope without a net below me.

Education: For some, if chemotherapy goes well the first time, it can go well for the other sessions. For some, chemotherapy may go well the first time but get more difficult at each session. For others, unexpected bumps in the road pop up. Everyone is different. Educate yourself: Here is where it is helpful to listen to your doctors and to your body and to communicate in a timely fashion with your doctor anything that happens. Be persistent in sharing your symptoms with the doctor and making sure you are heard.

Everyone’s cancer experience is unique, and you will get through your period of active chemotherapy treatment thus successfully completing your own Chemotherapy 101 Class. Be gentle to yourself, attentive to what your doctors and nurses are telling you, and communicate, communicate, communicate.

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