Chemotherapy is one of the biggest unknowns for patients during the cancer treatment process. It is so foreign and un-relatable for many people. The majority of the questions I receive are about chemotherapy, what to should expect, and the impending hair loss. For some reason, I have been putting off writing this post for months. I think my avoidance stemmed from not wanting to relive the experience, but I now know that my gained perspective is of value to others. I hope that these tips & tricks I learned during my chemotherapy experience will be beneficial for other people who are preparing for or currently going through chemo. For reference, my chemotherapy was TCH (Docetaxel, Carboplatin, Herceptin). Just remember that everyone is different. The side effects I experienced and describe, may not happen to you. Try to keep an open mind and try some of the tips and tricks listed below.
1. Hair Loss
- Preventing Hair Loss: Having chemo doesn’t always mean losing all your hair. If you’re willing to sit for hours with an freezing “cold cap” on your head you might be able to minimize your hair loss, so ask your doctor if it’s an option. I didn’t go with this route myself, but I have met many women who had great results with cold-cap treatment. When using a cold-cap, any thinning you do experience will grow back faster because the hair doesn’t have to grow back from below the root.
- Cut or Shave Your Hair: If you decide against cold-cap therapy, don’t shave your head as soon as you find out you’re going to have chemo. Consider doing it in stages. I chose to cut my hair to a short pixie cut before my treatment began and then I shaved it all off when my hair began to fall out (usually two-three weeks after the first chemo session). This really helped me minimize the shock and trauma associated with hair loss.
- Wig Shopping: Don’t buy all your wigs before you start chemo – they’ll look completely different once you lose your hair and they can be very expensive. Once you lose your hair you may decide you want to try an entirely different style. I’d suggest starting with one before your chemotherapy starts and then you can build on that collection as the process goes on. You can read more of my wig buying tips, tricks and advice here.
2. Dental Care: Go to your dentist and have your teeth cleaned prior to chemo. Chemo can wreck havoc on your mouth and you will not be cleared to return to the dentist until 3-4 after your last chemotherapy session. This is a precaution to avoid a bacterial bloodstream infection. Biotene mouthwash and toothpaste are wonderful during chemotherapy for maintaining dental care and they won’t irritate sensitive gums or mouth sores (another common side effect).
3. Research Side Effects: Ask your doctor about common and uncommon side effect that may occur during chemotherapy. Knowing what to expect will make it less scary if you experience those side effects. There is so much that is unknown during the cancer process. Anything you can do to educate yourself and prepare can help relieve anxiety.
4. Eat, Eat, Eat: Many people warned me about losing my appetite, developing distastes for certain foods, and a persistent metallic taste in my mouth. Luckily I didn’t have any awful experiences in these areas, but everyone is different. My advice is simply to eat whenever you are hungry. There will be times when you are nauseous and can’t eat, so I really came to appreciate my appetite.
I actually ended up gaining about 10 lbs during chemotherapy and for someone who is normally very weight conscious and fit, this initially upset me. My husband and doctors were actually quite pleased though. Gaining this minimal amount of weight kept me from vomiting frequently and allowed my body to process the toxins from the chemotherapy with fewer negative impacts. Another important thing to remember is that smells and tastes can easily become associated with your negative memories of nausea and vomiting, so stay away from your favorite foods on chemo weeks.
5. Push fluids: Chemotherapy can be very dehydrating Drinking lots of water, green tea (unsweetened) or bone broth* can really help. Drinking lots of liquid before, during and after chemotherapy sessions can also alleviate feelings of nausea and help flush the toxins out of your body more quickly.
Hydrating before blood tests also make it easier for nurses to access your veins. *Bone broth is made by boiling chicken or beef bones in water for 24-48 hours. The nutrients from the bone marrow are released into the water and you can then consume the broth as you would normal chicken or beef stock. Bone broth is wonderful for your immune system, which will be very depleted during chemotherapy. I would make huge batches and freeze the bone broth in mason jars. Then, I could easily defrost and drink 1 cup every morning on my way to work. You can read more about bone broth and how to make it here. You can also purchase bone broth powder to add to smothies, soups, etc.
6. Try a variety of anti-nausea items: I tried almost every anti-nausea idea out there. Unfortunately, there was no one magic solution, but by the final few treatments I had figured out what worked well through trial and error. Keep in mind that what worked for me may not work for you so if at first you don’t get relief, try something else. I have listed some of the things that worked well for me below.
- High dose anti-nausea meds during chemotherapy IV (depending on your chemotherapy drugs this may be added automatically. It was not added for me, so I had to request it when the initial cocktail they were using wasn’t working for me and I was still experiencing delayed nausea)
- Peppermint essential oil
- Ativan under your tongue (this helps with anxiety and the mental causes of nausea)
- Ginger tea, ginger chews or queasy drops
- Anti-nausea wristbands (These really helped me make it through my nauseous morning drives to work)
- Crackers, toast, bone broth/chicken noodle soup
- Lots of water (this cute water bottle helps you remember)
7. Stress/Anxiety Relief: A cancer diagnosis and the treatments that follow can cause major anxiety and stress. The anxiety and stress may then present as physical symptoms. Recognizing the impact your stress and anxiety have on your well being can be very important. There are many tools for stress/anxiety relief that can be beneficial. These are a few of the things that worked well for me. The more I worked on my anxiety and mental state, the more easily I was able to recover through my sessions.
- Inspirational or motivating music
- Journaling/ self reflection (I love this gratitude journal and this marble cover blank journal)
- Deep breathing
- Inspirational reading here, here and here
- Guided Meditation CDs ( I always took these to appointments, and surgeries)
8. Skincare: Chemotherapy can make your skin dry, and irritated, so be sure to moisturize everyday. I also experiences odd acne rashes on my chest, which is a another quite common side effect of the chemo. Coconut oil was my go-to for all my skin concerns along with topic steroid creams from the Onc when things got bad. Look for a fragrance free cream or moisturizer, because the chemotherapy can make your skin extremely sensitive.
9. Paint your nails:
Chemotherapy damages all rapidly-dividing cells, not just the cancerous ones. Thus, your nails, skin, and hair cells will likely be damaged in the process. One trick is to paint your nails before treatment sessions to help preserve them. I kept my nails painted throughout treatment and was able to avoid any of them turning black and falling off. Make sure to stay away from gel polish or fake nails during treatment and be extremely careful that your nail salon is using sanitary tools, because you will be more susceptible to infections. Also be sure to consult with your doctor, as these suggestions may not apply to all types of cancer treatment.
10. Listen to Your Body & Rest: The more you sleep and rest, the quicker you will bounce back from each treatment. Once I learned this and began listening to my body, my recovery times improved drastically. My mantra became “Accept and move on — this too shall pass, “. After my last few treatments, I slept off and on for 48 hours and after that I was good to go. Just remember each person is different and the most important part is to listen to your body. Sleep and rest will allow your body to heal.
10. Take Advantage of Available Resources: T here are tons of resources available for cancer patients. Check with your local hospitals and non-profits to find out what they offer. I was able to receive complimentary massage, acupuncture, makeup application, scalp massage and home cleaning during treatment. Check out Cleaning for a Reason to see if they have providers in your area.
11. Bring Entertainment & a Companion: Most chemo days will be extremely long and exhausting. Bring something to entertain you: a book, music or a deck of cards. Sleep also helps pass the time. I loved the relaxation that the chemo sessions afforded me. With no where to go, there wasn’t much else I could do but rest. There were a few times I brought my computer and worked, but I would not suggest doing that. The drugs are taxing enough on your body. There is no reason to add mental stress to the mix. My husband came with me to every single session and this was a wonderful blessing. He made me laugh, helped pass the time and drove my tired ass home each time. He made sure I never felt alone in the process. If your spouse can’t come with you, bring a friend. It’s comforting to have someone by your side during the process.
Chemo Bag Essentials