If you and your Oncologist have decided that chemotherapy is the preferred treatment option for you, panic and anxiety may soon enter along with fear, hopelessness and a whole myriad of emotions you never knew you could feel. You deserve to indulge in these feelings – you’re allowed and entitled, but only for a short time. Now is the time for action.
No doubt you’ve gone online and read up on chemotherapy and if you’re like me, you got more and more confused. Some of the information out there is encouraging (I prefer these sites).
At some point in the not so distant past, chemotherapy was a horrendous experience and one that could surely kill you in its own right. Not saying that chemotherapy today is to be taken lightly, but compared to 10, 15, 30 years ago, this is a day at the beach. There will be side effects, of course. You can’t inject toxins into your blood and not expect to have a side effect or two or ten. But overall, nothing like your grandmother would’ve experienced.
Now, before I go any further into this let me say that all chemotherapy treatments and chemical mixtures are different as well as the patient receiving the drugs. So don’t expect this to be a blueprint on how you will react to your chemotherapy. This is a guideline based on my own personal experience and the experience of others in the infusion room at my Oncologist’s office receiving chemo. These men and women are all soldiers, but they didn’t all start out that way.
YOUR FIRST DAY OF CHEMOTHERAPY
CONCERN #1: Your Oncologist, no doubt, told you that there will be side effects. One of the side effects is an allergic reaction to the chemo itself. This reaction can be mild, moderate, and severe to life threatening which is very rare. Your Onc probably told you not to worry about this as they will be monitoring you closely during the session.
Now tell me – would that work for you? It didn’t work for me. I envisioned myself dead on the infusion room floor with all the nurses unsuccessfully trying to revive me. I envisioned grand mal seizures ending in a 20 year coma. I went into the infusion room shaking with fear.
SOLUTION TO #1: Okay, scared to death I walked into the room. All the nurses welcomed me in and told me to sit anywhere I wanted. They couldn’t have been nicer or more caring. I requested a particular nurse due to her IV starting abilities. She gets the vein the first time, every time. My veins are hard to find and they roll away, so I need nothing short of the best to make this experience less stressful. My nurse came over and immediately started the IV to get it over with and as anticipated – first time in…..awesome. Then she explained to me in great detail what was going to happen step by step. It was then that I learned that you are given pre-medications to ward off any side effects or allergic reactions to the chemotherapy drugs. WHAT!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why wasn’t I told this earlier? So let me get this straight – the drugs can have terrible effects, but you’re going to give me drugs to stop it from happening in the first place? Awesome – I can handle this.
As far as I know, all chemotherapy drugs are administered after pre-medications go onboard. This happens every single time you get chemotherapy. If you start to get a mild reaction, they can adjust the dosage or placement in the regimen of each pre-med according to what you need most. In other words, if you start feeling nauseous immediately after they start infusing the chemotherapy drugs, they can increase the dosage of the anti-nausea medication and put it last in order of the pre-meds just before the chemo is infused for the best possible effectiveness. The same goes for dizziness due to an allergic reaction. They will adjust the dosage and placement of the pre-med for this (usually Benadryl) right before chemo infusion. Presto…….amazingly enough……no grand mal seizures or projectile vomiting to worry about.
Also, in my case anyway, they infused the chemotherapy drug at a slower pace the first time. I was (and am) on Taxol and Herceptin. The Taxol infuses over a period of one hour. For the initial sessions, they infused the Taxol over 90 minutes. Herceptin is infused over 30 minutes, but for the initial session it was infused over one hour.
NOTE: This was my worst fear with chemotherapy. My first session went without a hitch and has been uneventful every time thereafter. I have seen patients actually being taken away by ambulance from anxiety before ever starting their chemotherapy due to one fear or another. Whatever your fear is, ask your questions. Ask the infusion nurses, your doctor, your breast cancer navigator if you have one in your area. Go to support sites. Go in there armed and ready for battle.
CONCERN #2: Nausea, heartburn, and vomiting. Yuck…can you imagine a worse scenario to live with for months at a time? I can’t. Yes, these are very real side effects from chemotherapy drugs.
SOLUTION TO #2: The good news is that they have great medications these days to counteract all of the above. Get them filled ahead of time and you won’t feel one day of these debilitating effects. Start taking them before they start. It’s allowed, in fact, its encouraged. No one wants you to suffer. Your Oncologist should call prescriptions in to be ready for you when you leave. If the prescribed medications are not working to full capacity for you, tell your Oncologist and he will prescribe another medication that’s either stronger or that addresses another area of the symptom. Just keep trying until you get it right.
Other side effects can be constipation and hair loss. Not all chemotherapy makes you lose your hair. If yours does, click on the pages that deal with these side effects more thoroughly. Constipation seems to be a given, so read the page on constipation so that you won’t have to suffer even once from this extremely uncomfortable side effect.
Fatigue is also a very common among chemotherapy patients. The only thing to do is to rest and make sure that you’re getting enough sleep. Really….sleep when you’re tired. Even if it’s the middle of the day. You’re body has declared war on a powerful intruder and sleep will provide strength to keep fighting.
CHEMO BRAIN HAPPENS
Unfortunately, chemo brain happens. It doesn’t hit you overnight in a blitz attack. Instead, it attacks slowly so that you rarely see or feel it coming until all of a sudden, you’ve forgotten your husband’s name or can’t remember which direction to leave the parking lot, or even worse – where did you park your car? You mix up your dog’s and cat’s names with your children’s and grandchildren. You find yourself going into the kitchen, but half way there you completely forget what you wanted to do.
Okay, this can be scary. Keep your sense of humor about things and do some simple brain exercises. If you have never done so, now is the time to keep a journal for all of those doctor appointments and important events like paying bills and depositing checks.
BRAIN EXERCISES: These can be as simple as doing a crossword puzzle and playing scrabble. In the morning, write down 3 to 5 words and memorize them. See if you can recall the words at lunchtime or dinner time. Make a game out of remembering the words. If you’re going grocery shopping, by all means, make a list but try to remember what’s on it without looking.