Chemotherapy is scary, especially when you don’t know much about it. When you read about all the side effects, it may be a bit overwhelming. Chemotherapy is given in “cycles”, where the same medication is given multiple times at a specific interval. For example, I receive four cycles of AC chemotherapy, given every two weeks.
This page has some tips that I learned through my experience. It is in no way meant to be medical advice. If you have some tips you’d like to see added to this page, please leave a comment.
- Start chemotherapy with an attitude of exploration. Attitude does make a difference, especially when you are having hard day. The journey through chemotherapy is an opportunity for you to develop a deeper understanding of your body – and how it reacts to the different medications. Approaching it as a journey – a marathon – an experience – may help you keep a positive attitude which in turn makes you more pleasant to be around.
- Keep a log of side effects and how you feel. When starting a new regime, keep a log on how you feel each day of the regime. This will be very useful for you when you get into the next cycle – as it will allow you to predict (at least a little bit) what you might be feeling on a given day of the cycle. My logs allowed me to know which days to plan activities with friends, and which days plan to stay at home and rest.
- Report all side effects (especially early on). Not everybody experiences all the side effects with chemotherapy. Each person reacts to the medication in different ways. As a result of this, your oncologist may take a ‘wait and see’ approach to treating side effects. When you first start chemotherapy, the doctors will treat for some side effects (e.g. nausea), but others they will not. If the side effects are not common, they won’t treat for them. If you have a side effect, there may be things you can do to reduce its effect on the next cycle – or medications you can take to reduce the side effect. It is important to let your oncology care team know about what side effects you are having, so they can help reduce the impact of those side effects.
- Before taking meds for side effects, check the side effects of the meds. One of the issues with treating chemotherapy side effects, is that the medication for side effects have side effects. I’ve learned the hard way, that I’m prone to mouth sores. When I take any medication that causes mouth dryness, the mouth sores get worse. I now check the side effects of any medication for dry mouth. I balance the risk of worsening mouth sores with the side effect the medication is treating. Is it worth it?
- When the nurse says ‘no’, ask your oncologist. In my experience, nurses are trained to be overly cautious when it comes to patients on chemotherapy. This may be good, but when you are the patient, and you want something, it may mean not doing something you could have been doing. For example, best advice is to avoid raw fish while on chemotherapy. When I asked the nurse, they say ‘no sushi’. When I asked my oncologist, he says ‘if it doesn’t make your husband sick, it won’t make you sick – go for it’. The same with biking. The nurses were all concerned about me biking while on chemotherapy. When I was strong, my oncologist encouraged it. Until I had symptoms that specifically made biking unsafe (balance issues), I was encouraged to keep up the activity. The nurses didn’t know that I was a touring cyclist, and that cycling kept me both sane and strong. If I had listened to the nurses, I would have spent the entire time on chemotherapy living in a bubble not exercising and not eating foods I want to eat. Now, I’m not saying, don’t listen to the nurses. I’m saying, that nurses will give you advice that is overly cautious. If it is something you really want, check with your oncologist to see if it is something that really warrants the caution in your specific case.
- Exercise when you can. Exercise (even a 20-minute walk) can help fight fatigue. There were times when I thought all I could do was sleep – but then I couldn’t actually sleep. I wasn’t tired, I was fatigued. In those moments, going for a walk or swim actually made me feel more awake and alert. It is best to try and stay as active as you can while you can. Later cycles of chemo may reduce the amount of exercise you can do – so do it while you can. I consider exercise to be part of my job! That way, I make it a priority in my day.
- On chemo day, bring food you like, but not foods you love. Some of the chemo drugs make you nauseous. You will need to eat well to keep your energy up. Eating before chemo can help. If the chemo causes bad nausea (like AC), then you may end up associating the food you eat during chemo with nausea. So, find food you like to eat, but don’t bring food you love, as you may completely loose your taste for those foods.
- Consider shaving your head before you lose your hair. This is a very individual choice, but when your hair starts to fall out, it is much easier to manage if it is already really short. I have three tips for when you are actually losing your hair (if you shaved it first):
- Remember that you still need to wash and condition your scalp. Your scalp may dry out, so buy a nice conditioner that you like and use it every time you shower. I’m a fan of tea tree oil conditioner. You use so little, you can afford to splurge on something nice that you like.
- Use a separate towel to dry your head after a shower. As your hair is falling out, your towel will end up with lots of little hairs – if you use the same towel on your body, you’ll end up with lots of little hairs all over your body!
- Put on a buff (like Survivor – this one is my favorite) or hat before putting on t-shirts. If you leave your shedding head uncovered when you dress, you will end up with little hairs in the collar of your shirt (rather itchy).
- Buy yourself some nice body wash – or something else that feels a little like pampering. I recieved a free sample of Acure’s Cell Stimulating Body Wash in my BCC Comfort Tote (something they give to all first timers). I loved the body wash so much that it felt a little like I was pampering myself every time I got in the shower.