Yeah, so, before I started chemotherapy in March I did a lot of googling. I was trying to learn all I could about what I should expect and what I would need. I was able to gather a pretty hefty list of tips from those blog posts and – of course – figure out some things for myself along the way.
I have a few friends who were recently diagnosed with breast cancer, which is upsetting, because – seriously – fuck cancer. I’ve been thinking a lot about them and the other random chemotherapy googlers out there, and I wanted to put together a blog post of things I found helpful throughout my chemotherapy to ease the side effects.
As of this writing, I am three Taxol treatments away from finishing my chemotherapy. I did four rounds of AC and I’m about to finish 12 rounds of Taxol. Chemotherapy affects people differently, so what worked for me may not work for you. You may get some side effects that I never did. And there are a lot of different chemotherapy regimes out there with different side effects. I can only speak to my chemotherapy, so here we go …
If your doctor recommends it, get a port. I was resistant because it was just one more procedure to deal with. However, the port really has made things a little easier. There’s no hunting for veins every time I need blood work or when I’m sitting in the chemo chair. It’s just one less thing to worry about once you start chemotherapy.
Stay ahead of your nausea. Take the all the nausea meds – ALL OF THEM. After my first round of AC I left the hospital feeling pretty OK, but when I got home I got SO SICK. I vomited for more than 12 hours. It was the worst. They gave me nausea meds before the chemo, but I was too slow in taking them again. My advice: Take more anti-nausea meds immediately after your infusion. I took more in the parking garage elevator. I didn’t give nausea a chance to show up. After that disastrous first time, mighty, mighty good man David and I locked that shit down. He wrote out a pill schedule and we stayed ahead of it – even if I meant setting an alarm and waking up at 2 a.m. to take meds. He got out of bed and brought me pills, because he is the best human being on the planet. I found that my nausea hit me right away and lasted three to four days. After that I could tapper off the meds, taking the occasional Zofran. I still tend to take the Ativan at night even though I don’t have nausea with Taxol, because it also helps with anxiety and helps me sleep.
You’re probably going to lose your hair. I started shedding my hair about two weeks after my first chemo treatment. Some people complain that their head gets kinda sore when their hair falls out. I didn’t notice any pain, but it was emotionally draining. I didn’t wait too long after it started falling out before I just shaved it off. I bought a lot of wigs – probably too many. My favorite place to order wigs was Cysterwigs.com. The owner does really informative videos for the wigs, so you can see how they look on a real person. She’s honest. I spent a lot of time watching her videos, and I picked out some really great wigs.
I didn’t waste my money on a human hair wig. They are more work. Synthetic hair wigs look fabulous, and they are cheaper and low maintenance. Some chemo patients had good luck keeping their hair with cold caps. However, they are expensive, and they don’t always work. Putting a freezing cap on my scalp during chemo sounded really terrible, and I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars to try to keep my hair, so I just accepted that I would lose my hair and wear wigs. Bright side of losing your hair: You won’t need to shave your legs or armpits, or worry about your secret mustache that you never talk to anyone about or pluck that random dark hair that grows on your chin.
Losing your hair sucks, but wigs are fun. See?
Wash your hands ALL THE TIME. Get everyone around you to wash their hands. Carry hand sanitizer with you. You will have a low white blood cell count, so you’ll need to deal with germs. Since I was hyper-focused on nausea after my first chemo treatment I didn’t really take into account that germs were a big deal. About two weeks after my first treatment I ended up in the hospital for three days with a neutropenic fever. It sucked. Don’t let that happen to you. Be mindful of germs. Stay away from people with colds, etc. Seven to 10 days out from your chemo treatment is the hot zone, so it’s best to avoid crowds and maybe hide in your house for a day or two. It can be tough if you have kids. I probably got my fever from Calvin, because he goes to preschool and schools are germ factories. After my stay in the hospital, we all started washing our hands all the time, and now Calvin knows the first thing he needs to do when he gets home is wash his hands.
Eat what you want to eat. This was advice from my wise friend Jesse, who did chemo for like two years before passing away from cancer a few weeks ago. (I fuckin’ hate cancer so much.) There will be times you don’t feel like eating. That’s normal. Chemotherapy can change your taste buds. Sometimes the food you love won’t taste very good to you. Don’t eat it. You can eat it again when chemo is finished. Also, your stomach can be really sensitive, so maybe spicy isn’t an awesome idea. With Taxol, my appetite is relatively back to normal. While undergoing the AC treatment, I suffered from pretty bad nausea and a sensitive stomach. During that time my favorite thing to eat (when I was ready to eat) was fettuccine alfredo. Probably not the healthiest thing to eat but so yummy. Toast with jelly was always tasty. And, this is embarrassing, but I really loved Chef Boyardee’s Beefaroni. Go ahead and laugh, but that shit tasted delicious to me.
Drink a lot of water. Staying hydrated is important. I drink two (sometimes three) giant pitchers of water a day. I want to flush my system of all the chemo toxins ASAP. Like I said, sometimes your taster is off, and water can taste kinda metallic. For a while I was making ginormous pitchers of Crystal Light lemonade to flavor the water. Later I switched to the Dasani flavor drops (I liked the Mixed Berry flavor), and I would just flavor my water a glass at a time. Currently, my favorite is just water with a splash of lemon juice. I also bought a really big glass to drink out of all day so I didn’t have to get my lazy ass off the couch to keep refilling my drink all the time.
While in the chemo chair, I like to sip on something. During my AC treatments I brought a couple of cans of ginger ale with me. It helped with the nausea, and it keeps the icky taste out of your mouth that you can get during chemo. During my Taxol treatments, I switched to Vitamin Water Zero Fresh Squeezed Lemonade. Some folks prefer to suck on hard candy during chemo. I like the idea of drinking something because I want to flush all the chemo toxins out of my system as quickly as possible.
Bring a guest to chemo. While in the chemo chair, it’s nice if someone can come with you. You might be pretty loopy after your treatment. You’ll need a ride. Plus, time goes by faster if you have someone to keep you company. My chemo ran usually about two hours, but I know that some treatments can be much longer. I met a man who was going to be there for eight hours! David came with me the first time, but after that my mom and sister switched off. Other folks in the infusion center bring a guest as well. They usually read magazines or they are looking at things on their phones. If you are going to be there for a while, you might want to stream something on a tablet or your phone. Bring headphones if you’re going to watch something. The infusion center can be kinda quiet, and some people actually sleep during their treatments. If you don’t want to watch or read anything but are looking for a way to pass the time, you could listen to a podcast. My mom, sister and I are talkers, so I don’t read, watch and listen to anything during treatments. However, I have been listening to the F This Movie podcast a lot while getting blood work, driving back and forth to the hospital, resting on the couch, etc. It’s really great. It’s like listening to your friends talk about movies. I highly recommend it.
Mouth sores: I read that mouth sores are a common side effect during chemo. I haven’t had any mouth sores. I don’t know if that’s because I was never going to get mouth sores in the first place or if it’s because I read that mouth sores are a common side effect and immediately bought Biotene toothpaste and mouthwash, which I read about on some other blog post with chemo tips. Either way, I recommend Biotene. It appears to have worked for me.
You need to wear sunscreen. Your skin is extra sensitive to sun during chemotherapy. I wear Neutrogena sunscreen all the time, because that’s what works best for me. You might have a different brand that works best for your skin type. I wear 100+ sunscreen on my body. I wear 50+ Healthy Defense Healthy Daily Moisturizer on my face, but if I’m going to the park or zoo, I switch to Neutrogena’s Age Shield 70+. I’m not going to lie: I was pretty worried about chemo taking its toll on my skin. I wanted to be extra kind to it, so I also started washing my face with Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser, and I bought a tub of Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream, and I just slathered that stuff all of my body and face when I got out of the shower. My skin is the softest it’s ever been.
Neuropathy is a common side effect of Taxol. Neuropathy is when you start to lose feeling in your hands and feet – like they are falling asleep. It sounds shitty as hell. I haven’t had that side effect yet. *knocks on wood* However, losing fingernails and toenails are also side effects of Taxol, and right now (with just three more treatments to go) my nails are starting to feel sore. I haven’t lost any nails yet. In my attempt to make sure that doesn’t happen, I have been keeping my nails cut short, and I wear gloves when doing the dishes to keep them protected.
Try acupuncture. My hospital offers it as part of the chemotherapy to help with nausea and neuropathy. It helped me. It doesn’t hurt to try it. Plus, it doesn’t hurt. Oh, and it’s relaxing. My acupuncturist has been a great resource for me on what to expect from chemo and always offers helpful advice. It’s a little bit like a therapy session. I always feel better after a visit.
It’s time to talk some shit. Seriously. We need to talk about pooping. Sorry if this is TMI, but during chemo you will be in a constant struggle between constipation and diarrhea. Chemo can cause diarrhea, and anti-nausea meds can make you constipated. (In the chemo class the doctor made me take, I wondered if you could get both constipation and diarrhea at the same time, but I was afraid to ask.) If you are taking anti-nausea meds, drink a lot of water and take a stool softener every day. I’m serious. Every day. You will thank me later. The chemo can cause diarrhea, you need to stay hydrated and I take Immodium AD as needed, and that always does the trick. Also, you might want to get those Cottenelle flushable wipes or Preparation H wipes with witch hazel. Once again, sorry if this is too gross for you, but you are going to have to deal with it, and we’re all about honesty here on The Sonia Show. We’re not afraid to talk about shit.
Buy some Kleenex. Chemo can aggravate your allergies, but also you lose your hair EVERYWHERE, including your nose. My nose is constantly running, so I always have a little pack of tissues on me at all times.
Random stuff that is in my purse all the time: Hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, a little pack of Kleenex, Zofran, Immodium AD, flushable wipes and sunblock. I’m a mom, so I’m used to having a lot of random crap in my purse (a toy truck, goldfish crackers, a box of raisins, etc).
Be nice to yourself. Chemo sucks. You don’t. You’re awesome. You’re going to have to say no to a lot of stuff that you want to say yes to, and that’s depressing. Just remember it’s all temporary. Say yes when you can. I tried writing a list of positive things about chemotherapy. It’s a short list. HA! Reach out to your friends and family. Let them help you. They want to help you. I have amazing friends and family who brought me food when I felt like eating or they just sit on the couch and watch “Love, Lust or Run” with me. Cancer can make the people around you feel helpless, and doing little things to help you makes them feel better. Let them help you. You’re doing them a favor if you think about it.
Cancer sucks. It’s scary as hell. But you have to fight it, and that’s why you are doing chemotherapy. And yeah, chemo sucks, too. You’ll start dealing with all these shitty side effects and start to wonder if it’s worth it. Personally, I think it’s worth it. The alternative is letting cancer win, and, well, fuck that.
So, to my friends who are getting ready to start chemotherapy, I hope you find this list helpful. You know you can reach out to me anytime, day or night. I’m sending my good vibes to you.
If you stumbled across this blog post during your random googling about chemotherapy because you are getting ready to start your chemo, I’m sorry about the cancer, and welcome to my blog. I wish you the best of luck with your treatment and a speedy recovery. I hope you kick cancer’s ass. If you have any questions, absolutely feel free to post in the comments. I’m not an expert on breast cancer or chemotherapy, but I have experience that I’m willing to share.