Ask a cancer patient what his or her chemotherapy experience was like, and you'll quickly find that, like any other part of the cancer journey, everyone's story is different. The physical symptoms are predictable: loss of hair, weakness, and nausea. But the human stories are different. These are stories of triumph, determination, and strength.
Reading about others' experiences may help you prepare for your own chemotherapy treatments. If you're a caregiver for someone about to begin chemotherapy, you will likely find here a few things you can do to help make your loved one's (and your own) experience easier.
Be Your Own Advocate
In 2001, Allison Baggett, a kindergarten teacher from Scottsboro, Alabama, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 33 and had just had her youngest child the year before. Baggett had nine rounds of chemotherapy—three different drugs, three times each, every two weeks. She also had a bilateral mastectomy and used expander implants to stretch breast tissue and muscle before having permanent implants. After the ordeal, she was able to return to a normal life and was confident that the worst was behind her.
But the cancer came back eight short years later. "The doctor told me I was crazy, and he was only doing the scan for my peace of mind, but I just knew." The test results confirmed Baggett's suspicions. This time, the cancer had spread into her internal mammary glands, and had it not been pressing on a nerve in her shoulder, the cancer would have likely become far advanced before it ever began causing symptoms. Baggett underwent a completely different chemotherapy and drug treatment, and the cancer is now gone.
"It wasn't the doctor's fault. When he realized it was cancer, he started crying and apologizing," says Baggett, who is now 44 and has been in remission for two years. "But I just knew. You are your body's only advocate. You know when something's wrong, when something's different. If you have to push to have something done, push. Had I not, I wouldn't be here today."
Meet Hair Loss Head-on
A routine visit to the doctor's office last year saved Tia Diaz-Balart's life. Her doctor reminded her to do her monthly breast exam, a task often forgotten by many women with harried schedules and hectic households, including her. "I work full-time, have a 6-year-old son, and a husband who is always on the road," says the 44-year-old non-profit director who lives in Miami, Florida. "But that Sunday, I remembered my doctor's reminder and did a self-exam while showering." She found a lump, and before the week's end, she had her diagnosis: cancer.
Hair loss is typical for chemotherapy patients—the job of chemotherapy drugs is to attack the rapidly growing cancer cells. Chemotherapy also attacks other growing cells, such as those in your hair roots. One to three weeks after you begin your first round of chemotherapy, your hair loss will begin. "My hair started falling out just after my second chemo treatment," says Diaz-Balart. "At first, a few little strands started coming out. Then huge clumps, especially in the shower."
Chemotherapy also makes the hair follicles and roots tender, which is why Diaz-Balart made the decision to shave her head. "I decided to shave my head to see if that would make it more comfortable, and it absolutely did," she says.
Adjusting to your new appearance can take some time, so many people, especially women, choose to wear wigs until they're comfortable and ready to talk about the treatment and experience. "I was afraid that in letting the world know, it would be too overwhelming for me to manage. I wanted to focus on other things, not my circumstances," says Diaz-Balart. "At the beginning, I wore a wig. Then my family went to a party—there were dozens of other people and their children. When we walked in, my son belts out at the top of his lungs, ‘My mom is wearing a wig!' That was it. It was a great way for me to just get it all out there."
Feed Your Body Well
"When I was feeling sick because of the chemo, I tended to want comfort food," says Diaz-Balart. "But if I ate junk food or food high in salt, fat, or even sugar, I would feel even more sick than before." Salt, especially, was a culprit in her not feeling well. If she ate too much salt, she would swell. During her experience with chemo, her swelling became such a problem that she damaged and eventually lost four toenails. To remedy that experience and prevent further problems, Diaz-Balart began eating a "clean and natural" diet to help her heal and feel better.
This experience was shared by Joseph Dispenza, a writer living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Dispenza, 69, was diagnosed with lymphoma in July 2011 and underwent six chemo treatments. He found that eating healthfully was the best way to help his body feel better after chemotherapy. "Your chemo trip can be made a lot less horrible if you stick with a good, nourishing diet," he says.
Turn the Experience Into Something Positive
"My husband, Mike, was so good about making my chemo trips into something special," says Baggett. "Every time we would go, he'd take me to eat at a different restaurant, go somewhere new to shop. We made it a date night." For Baggett, that was the key to making her chemotherapy treatments something she looked forward to.
"I still have a friend who only associates Birmingham [where she and Baggett went for treatments] with bad things," she says. "To this day, she won't go there. But I have good memories from it."
- "Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment." (2012 March 6.) Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 31, 2012 from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hair-loss/CA00037