Chemotherapy is one of the biggest unknowns for patients during the cancer treatment process. It is so foreign and un-relatable for many people. Having gone through chemo for breast cancer I hope to share my insight from the other side to help others know what to expect during chemo and 12 tips that helped me mack to make the process a bit more bearable.
For reference, my chemotherapy regime for my triple positive breast cancer was TCH (Docetaxel, Carboplatin, and Herceptin). While everyone's experience and reaction to chemotherapy will. be unique, I hope these tips help you feel a little more prepared for your own chemotherapy journey.
WHAT TO EXPECT DURING CHEMO: 12 TIPS FROM A SURVIVOR
1. Prepare Your Chemo Bag
Like packing for a trip, packing a chemo bag can make you feel a little more prepared for the experience. Most chemo days will be extremely long and exhausting. So, all the things I brought were for entertainment, comfort and side effect management.
For entertainment bring a book, music or a deck of cards. Sleep also helps pass the time. Also, 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. Moreover, 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.
If you can bring a companion it always makes the experience suck a little less. My husband came with me to every single session and this was a wonderful blessing. Also, 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. So, if your spouse can't come with you, bring a friend or family member.
2. Push the Fluids
It's hard to know what to expect during chemo, but one thing that will be true for everyone is that chemotherapy dehydrates you. So, 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. The 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 smoothies, soups, etc.
3. Take Care of Your Mental Health
Anxiety, grief, sadness, anger... so much of the cancer experience is mental. So, while we focus so much on the physical symptoms to expect from chemo, we can gloss over the mental impacts.
All of the emotional trauma is a normal part of the chemo experience but many people are not prepared. So, how do you prepare for the mental impact of your chemotherapy treatment?
- Familiarize yourself with calming breathing exercises. Check out this video guide I led.
- Incorporate mindfulness practices
- Educate yourself on the mental side of cancer can make the feelings themself feel less daunting. Also, you are not along in these feelings and they are not abnormal
- Read my post about Managing Cancer Induced Stress & Anxiety
- Talk to a mental health professional - if the person has experience with cancer patients that is even better (check with your cancer center for referrals)
- Talk to your doctor about medications you can try. I have been on a low dose Citalopram since the end of chemo and it helped so much. Also, I was on Ativan for the panic attacks during active treatment.
- Determine what tools calm you and helps process your emotions. I liked journalling, listening to guided meditation tracks during appointments and reading inspirational stories
4. Schedule Dental Care Before Chemo
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. So, this is a precaution to avoid a bacterial bloodstream infection. Biotene mouthwash and toothpaste are wonderful during chemotherapy for maintaining dental care. Also, they won't irritate sensitive gums or mouth sores (another common side effect).
5. Prepare for Hair Loss
Many forms of chemo will lead to hair loss. Check with your doctor on the specifics of your drugs. If you know the chemo will impact your hair you have a couple of options.
Explore Cold Caps
Cold-capping - where you wear a freezing contraption on your head during the chemotherapy treatments is becoming more and more popular. So, at the time I was going through chemo it was still very very expensive. But as it is proven more effect, financial resources and grants are more available. Also, 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
I chose to cut my hair to a short pixie cut before my treatment began. 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. Also, cut down on the physical discomfort associated with the hair follicles dying. I promise it grows back and I can help guide you through the hair regrowth.
Shop for Wigs or Headcoverings
While you may want to buy your wig prior to chemo, I suggest waiting until after your hair loss. In my experience, I thought I wanted a wig like my pre-cancer head but that ended up feeling too fake. However, I opted for trying different styles and since they're expensive it may be more helpful to wait. You can read more of my wig buying tips, tricks and advice. Also, I suggest you check out @previvor2survivor Carmela who has TONS of tips and tricks for wearing wigs. In terms of headscarfs and wraps I loved using scarves from TJMaxx, target and even Walmart. So, you even be may be like me and decide to go bald once you get comfortable with the appearance.
CHEMO ESSENTIAL SHOPPING LIST
6. Be Prepared for Loss of Taste and Weight Loss/Gain
Many people experience loss of appetite, distaste for certain foods (or nauseous reactions), and a temporary metallic taste in my mouth sometimes tied to the IV chemo. So, avoid your favorite foods on chemo weeks so you don't end up like I did hating your favorite Chinese dish for year's to come due to nausea association.
Also, while I didn't have a loss of appetite or metal taste I actually ended up gaining about 10 lbs during chemotherapy from the steroids and poor eating..
For someone who is normally very weight conscious and fit, this initially upset me. But my husband and doctors were actually quite pleased though. Gaining the weight actually kept me from vomiting frequently. Also, it allowed my body to process the toxins from the chemotherapy with fewer negative impacts.
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. Focus on fuelding your body with healthy foods. Also, I have more of my favorite cookbooks linked on my amazon page.
7. Prepare for Dry & Sensitive Skin
Chemotherapy can make your skin dry, and irritated, so be sure to moisturize everyday. I also experiences odd acne rashes on my chest. So, this is another quite common side effect of the chemo. Also, don't be afraid to ask your oncologists for topical steroids if you have hormonal reactions or rashes. PLEASE don't forget your sunscreen as well as your skin is super sensitive to the sun during chemo. Also, there are so many safe sunscreens these days from La Roche Posay, Coola, EltaMD, BareRepublic, and more.
When choosing products to use, look for fragrance free options like the ones below. Chemotherapy can make your skin extremely sensitive and "fragrance" can be a term used to conceal chemicals that may have an adverse effect on your skin. So, if your face is particular dry, check out this DIY face mask post for an at home solution to dry sensitive skin.
Fragrance Free Lotions & Skincare for Your Chemotherapy Skin
8. Paint Your Nails Before Chemo
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. So, one trick is to paint your nails (with a safe nail polish) before treatment sessions to help preserve them. Also, I kept my nails painted throughout treatment and was able to avoid any of them turning black and falling off. This is not guaranteed but is worth a try.
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 infection. *Consult with your doctor, as these suggestions may not apply to all types of cancer treatment.
9. Don't Give Up If Your First Anti-Nausea Medication Doesn't Work
While there is no magic solution for everyone's nausea, there are tons of options you can try. In my experience it's all about trial and error as you go through your chemotherapy. So, don't give up if the first medication doesn't work. Also, here are some of the things that worked for me:
- High dose anti-nausea meds during chemotherapy IV (depending on your chemotherapy drugs this may be added automatically. Nonetheless, 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)
10. Listen to Your Body & Rest
Going through cancer is a forced slow down. But if you're anything like me you'll be fighting it. Also, I worked through treatment and whener I had a good week I tried to fit in all the plans I was missing and the people I wanted to see. So, it wasn't until halfway through that this routine caught up with me.
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. So, 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. Also, show your body the kindness it deserves by allowing that rest and recovery time.
10. Accept The Help | Utilize the Resources
There are tons of resources available for cancer patients, especially during chemo. So, 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. Also, check out Cleaning for a Reason to see if they have providers in your area.
Family and friends can also be a supportive resource when instructed how to help. Also, I found everyone around me was more supportive when I told them what I needed and what was NOT helpful. So, ask them to walk the dog, pick up the kids, drop off dinner. Anything to help reduce your responsibilities during chemo so you can focus on your health.
11. Find Your Tribe
The last and most important thing that will make chemotherapy bearable is finding your army of supporters. You are not alone. So, find your tribe of cancer thrivers on social media (@mycancerchic) and connect with breast cancer thrivers in these amazing networks:
- Healthline Breast Cancer app. Within the app, you will be able to ask questions, share stories and laugh with women who just get what you are going through.
- Have another kind of cancer? Check out the Stupid Cancer app open to all cancer thrivers looking for community.
- Want workshops, bookclubs and live chats? Check out Living Beyond Breast Cancer, Young Survival Coalition, The Breasties and Lacuna Loft.
- Looking for other women of color navigating cancer? Check out For The Breast of Us
- Aways feel free to reach out to me. I am cheering you on!