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While undergoing cancer treatments, I wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like while interacting with the world outside of the hospital, but I found a few things that helped.
In the weeks leading up to chemo, I did all I could to prepare for what laid ahead.
The whole concept seemed terrifying and there were so many unknowns. What would the drugs feel like? Would they burn? The uncertainty was paralyzing. I spent hours poring through every motivational video I could find. I must have rewatched the entire “Rocky” franchise — punching along in the air, and visualizing myself in the ring, squaring off against my upcoming invisible opponent.
As it turned out, the actual delivery of chemo wasn’t too bad for me. The cocktail of chemicals I received didn’t burn; there were other side effects, often delayed, and plenty of ups and downs, but in my case, it escalated gradually.
What really threw me off was the radical physical transformation my body would undergo. I mean, sure, I knew I was destined for baldom, but I hadn’t anticipated the effect steroids and chemicals would have on puffing out and distorting my face, or that my weight would balloon. I didn’t realize that it’s not so much losing the hair that would throw me off, although that part is no picnic, but losing the eyebrows… That’s when I started to feel like an alien.
I definitely wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like while interacting with the world outside of the hospital. My treatment plan involved going in for chemo five days a week, so the majority of my experience was spent around other patients, doctors and nurses — an entire building revolved around supporting my needs. Everyone understood what I was up against.
But once I stepped back out on the streets — walking my dog back home, for example — the realities hit home differently.
People would look at my adorably cute dog and move in to engage, and then once they saw my face, they’d recoil sharply and keep on walking. Zero eye contact. Nothing to see here.
I wasn’t used to that. And often, worse than looks of pity, I’d feel a sense of complete indifference from others. As if I wasn’t even worth acknowledging.
These moments weren’t easy on the ego. But eventually I found my way through it. And having made it to the other side, I’m grateful to be able to offer tips on how I protected my self-esteem and maintained a sense of dignity (to the best of my ability) during treatment.
1. Above all else, don’t take this phase personally. I always tried to view treatment from the perspective of an explorer, navigating a foreign planet, taking note of different observations and experiences from a detached, impartial lens. I’d remind myself, “these feelings and reactions are completely natural — anyone going through this situation would likely feel the same way.”
2. Remember, this is temporary. Throughout treatment, I focused on healing and pushing through the chemo calendar, taking care of what each day called for and staying focused on the big picture and my longer-term goals. I’d remind myself that this is a necessary part of what needs to be done in order to get better.
3. Dress in a way that empowers you. Companies are beginning to recognize the toll treatment can take on patients’ spirits. There are so many great products available today which humanize patients and make treatment altogether smoother.
You can buy wigs to offset hair loss, or beanies — for example, Love Your Melon, which can offer comfort and style. Another great company I’ve come across is Care + Wear, which offers fashionable shirts and hoodies specifically designed for access to a chest port, or special PICC line covers. The world is catching up more and more to cancer fighters’ needs and that’s a beautiful thing.
4. Think empowering thoughts. To the best that you can, try and keep your focus away from worry and disease, and locked in on healing and long-term wellness. Keep your destination in mind, let it fuel you. It not only feels better, but it can support your immune system to visualize success rather than worry.
Also, when you keep your intended end result in mind, it helps make the unpleasant temporary phases easier to bear. (Of course, every situation with cancer is different and there are no guarantees — but in my experience, I always try to focus on what I can control and do all I can to give myself the best chance possible.)
Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. Fighting cancer can sap every ounce of your inner strength. Thankfully, there are support groups available in person and online. Lean on these resources if that helps. And whenever a new wave of fear or anxiety strikes, I find it helpful to think about the many thrivers that are alive and doing well today.
Keep that sense of belief alive and make sure to give your body, mind and soul an extra dose of well-needed self-compassion along the way.
One day at a time.
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