CHEMO....Short for 'Chemotherapy', short for hell--oooooh!

Bet you thought there was nothing good to say about chemotherapy, right?  Well, I actually found a few good things.

(A few bad, too.  If you didn't do chemo and don't know, some of these things may surprise you.)

For one, I'd never before been able to eat oranges or tomatoes, more than a bite or two anyway, without having a reaction to the acid in them, usually a 'cold sore' on my lips but also sometimes sores inside my mouth.  I'd look at someone drinking a lovely glass of orange juice and CRAVE it, but no, not for me. 

HOWEVER, after chemo, I no longer have cold sores!  I can eat several oranges in a row like a normal glutton, lol... and large glasses of juice... I've eaten a large plateful of raw tomato slices in the summer, just BECAUSE I CAN!  Maybe chemo doesn't kill everyone's little virus that resides in you to make cold sores, but it did mine. 

All my life, I'd actually SAID that I'd have injections directly into my lips if it'd kill cold sores.  Probably wouldn't have chosen breast cancer to get rid of them, but it was a nice 'parting gift' from the cancer treatment, don't you think?

Now comes the 'hair' issue.  Yes, chemotherapy of the sort given for breast cancer often makes you go bald.  As in, almost every time, no matter what they say about it not doing it sometimes.  It took a little longer for me to lose my hair than some, but it still went. However, though it was disconcerting, it turned out to NOT be perfectly horrible after all.  It's do-able, and you do get it back.

Usually, it comes back different for awhile, often returning to the 'pre-chemo' state within a year.  It's an odd little surprise when you've always had straight hair and wished for curly, and it grows back in little curls!  (People with curly hair, sometimes get straight hair back at first.)  Mine also came back very dark instead of the blondish color it was before, and with some areas that were almost white, (Alright, I looked like a Dalmatian, ok?)  but it quickly blended in to a general salt & pepper color.

Just about the time I had grown to accept & LOVE my short curly hair, I had a haircut one day and, straight hair again!  It had slowly grown out straight underneath the curls, same as it was before the hair loss, but it was a thicker, better texture, and has remained to be so even after three years.  It made me feel a little old though, for while it lightened up some in color, closer to my previous color, the white remained among it. 

After seeing a photo of myself one day and SWEARING it looked just like an elderly aunt, I'd had enough.  Off to the beauty supply store to get some temporary hair-color, the sort that lasts about six weeks.  (Forget it, you'll need it every 3 weeks, tops!) and suddenly I was myself again!  Hooray!  I loved my elderly aunt, but REALLY, I've got a few more years before needing to look like her, alright?

Now, for the bad stuff...get ready to FEEL kind of old and confused for a while after chemo is finished, maybe a long while.  You'll feel forgetful at times, and just not yourself.

Yes, I can hear you say right now that you KNOW someone who underwent chemo and still kept working, looking great and with a smile on their face daily, saying they felt great.  Come on, get real, this economy, who can afford to come dragging in to work looking like warmed-over gravy and complaining of fatigue?  Breast cancer survivors are already looked at as if we're going to:

  • Cost the company sick days and increase their insurance rates
  • Make co-workers mad because they have to take up the slack for us sickies
  • Make customers uneasy because we look ill
  • and after everything else, throw up on someone's shoes

So, do you really think women are going to ACT sick?  Nope, we put on our makeup, tug on a wig, put a smile on our face, and SAY, "Oh sure, I feel great, don't worry one bit about me."  We're women, it's what we do, and there's no one who hands us money to stay home just because it's chemo time.  The electric bill still has to be paid, and we need our insurance to get the medical care we need to survive.

I personally know women who have gone through it, and no matter how awful it was for them, they didn't let anyone at work know.  People worry that if they lose their job and their insurance, they may also lose their life because of no way to pay for treatment.

Life is not like seen in the movies folks, working survivors don't always get to lay around just because they are being treated for breast cancer.  And before you ask, NO, breast cancer patients do not get social security disability insurance just because they are in treatment.  Funny thing, most people don't know that about SSDI. 

Even if for some reason you did get disability because of some variation I don't know about, you can't get Medicare for TWO YEARS after being declared disabled by Social Security, so chances are you might not survive long enough without treatment to EVER get it,, women are going to continue to pretend to be in great shape during treatment so that they can keep their jobs, if they are able to.

If you know someone at work who is undergoing treatment, cut them some slack, people, ignore how you THINK they look on the SURFACE.  Try to imagine the reality of what they are going through.  You never know when it may be YOU in their shoes, so please think about it, and act with a good heart.

Here's a few tips on making your life a little easier while undergoing chemo.

Remember I am not a medical professional, just have been a patient, like you, and found that these things worked in my situation:

When you're going in for your first chemotherapy treatment, you feel as if you're going on a trip to a foreign country where you don't know the language.  Treat it as if you are.  Be prepared.  Make a little tote bag of goodies to make your trip easier. 

I found that a can of Pringles chips (doesn't make a noise every time you reach into a chip bag), a few packages of peanut butter crackers, and about 3 or 4 bottles of water, was a good amount to take. 

Here's the reason for those snacks.  The first IV bag they give you is likely to be something to reduce nausea and it can make you feel a little spacey and drunk, sometimes lasting for hours.  By my second treatment I found that very slowly nibbling a protein like peanut butter and a salty item like Pringles, stopped it for me. 

It also stopped the queasy feeling during the four hours or so I sat there connected to the IV bag.  You'll usually be sitting up in a reclining chair and able to reach around to get to your tote bag and change out snacks and water bottles.

Take a sweater and maybe a small lap robe also.  They may or may not have some blankets that the nurses will bring to you, but you often have to ask for it and they will usually have a roomful of people all undergoing chemo at once, so it's easier to bring your own as you may feel chilly during chemo.  Remember, you are not unique in this room, everyone needs something and the nurses will be busy, so be prepared to take care of yourself.

Bring a magazine you really love reading, or a good book, or an audio book and earphones, etc... it's much easier if you keep your mind occupied AWAY from watching that drug dripping into your veins.

Bring a little pocket change with you for unexpected extra items you may need.  Sometimes there are snacks or drinks available but there is also sometimes a request for donations to replenish them.  It's usually better to leave your purse locked in the car, as you are not at your best during chemo and won't always feel like looking after it.

Be sure to regularly sip water.  It's important to stay hydrated, which also lessens the negative side effects of the chemo.  As for myself, I found that spacing out my drinking to one bottle of water per hour, fairly frequent sips, did the trick.

After your first trip to chemo treatment, you'll know what else you might have wished you'd brought, as comfort is an individual thing.

You may want to bring someone with you, and sometimes that is alright, but be aware that there is not always room for them to sit near you and they will be bored long before you're finished. 

You really shouldn't drive afterward, so if you can have someone drop you off and pick you up, great.  My husband would set me up with my little 'nest' of comforts, and go run around town on errands, always making it back in plenty of time to help me up and to the car. 

It's great to have your cell phone in your tote bag, in case you have a reaction to treatment or need to be picked up early, but try to stay off it otherwise (be kind to your neighbors and to the medical equipment).

On the day you start chemo, you may see the doctor first.  Be sure to ask him about what to do for nausea at home.  He may call in prescriptions for you to pick up on the way home.  If you can't get them for whatever reason, ask if he can provide samples, as they often have them.  My doctor was kind enough to provide everything I needed.

 The first night you're home after your first chemo, you may feel a little odd, but you probably won't be sick.  The meds are great for that.  I can't describe the odd feeling for you, it's just, well, ODD.  By the second chemo, I'd discovered that if I nibbled something high-fat every waking hour or so during those first few days, it staved off that odd feeling until it went away pretty much after four days. 

By high fat, I don't mean pig out, you won't feel like that, trust me.  What I did was to make a single sandwich with mayo and bologna or salami (which I normally wouldn't eat, but chemo must be like pregnancy, your tastes change!) and I'd cut it into itsy bitsy bites, put it on a plate under plastic wrap and go get one tiny nibble of it every hour. 

You may find something else that works for you, it may be that my experience was odd, but if I forgot to get that bite of 'fat' every hour or so, that weird sickly feeling would return and I'd do anything to keep that away, so I did this.  Find what works for you, and rest as much as you can during this time.

Be prepared for unusual things to happen next.  It may not always be after your first chemo, but you will find odd things that may make you wonder at yourself.  I'd never been 'Mrs. Clean' before, but suddenly I'd get positively sick if I saw even the slightest crumb on the kitchen counter.  There were a couple of times that my dear husband had to completely wipe down everything before I could stand to go in the kitchen to cook.

Your taste buds will become strangers to you sometimes, as well.  Catsup, for example, suddenly started to taste like battery acid.  No, I've never tasted battery acid, but I've accidentally bitten into a bit of aluminum foil before with a filled tooth, and it was way worse than that, ick!  I also love coffee, but for first few days after chemo, could not stand the taste of it. 

Though some of your favorite foods will suddenly become horrible to you, if you find something you especially like, be sure to keep it around.  Chemotherapy time is NOT a time to diet.  Your strength and nutrition come FIRST, not your waistline.  Eat as healthy as possible, but mostly, just EAT.

Usually, in less than a week after your treatment, if you're having a cycle of treatment every 30 days, you'll suddenly feel like having a burger or whatever your personal downfall is, lol... just go have it.  For some reason, there was one local place that after I had their hamburger on about the 4th day, I'd suddenly feel GREAT!  It became a usual thing each month.  Hubby would stop and kiddingly order the 'chemo burger', then we'd go relax for the rest of the day, the worst was OVER!

Be prepared after your first chemo treatment, sometimes your white cell count drops very low, so low that you would need to avoid germs, not eat raw food like uncooked vegetables (forgo the salad), and stay away from your pet's claws, because you do not want to get any virus or bacterial problem.  You'll generally go back in to have a blood test to look for this, within a few days after your first chemo.

Get ready, they draw blood often, and for good reason.  You want your doctor to know if you have any sudden changes, so it's a good thing.  If you happen to be one of those whose white cell count does drop, you'll probably have to go in for shots every day for close to a week, and the shots quickly raise your cell count back up to a safe level.  This may happen every time you get your chemo, if it happens the first time.

A few hours after those type of shots, you may have some pain.  Mine was in my lower back and abdomen, because the shots are actually producing the new cells you need in your bones in that area.   Ask your doctor what to do for possible pain that could come after the shots.  If you forget to ask, and the pain starts later at home, you'll usually have an emergency number to call.  CALL IT.

I suffered needlessly for hours the first time it happened to me because I didn't know know this could happen or what to do about it.  I'm not going to 'prescribe' here, you will have to call your doctor.  Chances are good though that you may already have the meds that he'll advise you to take, and you will be very glad to take them because the pain is not fun. 

Don't try to be brave here, it's not worth it, you'll just have to trust me on that one. It really, really, really hurts if you don't take the right meds soon after the pain begins.  If you're lucky though, your cell count will stay fine and you'll never have to find out about this at all, we'll hope so!  Everyone is very different, so your mileage may vary.  :^)