Thursday, September 2, 2010

My chemo days

It has been a long time since I have addressed my cancer experience, so I thought I would dive back in at chemotherapy. Wee!

Thanks to movies and TV medical dramas, we all have a mental picture of what chemo looks like. When I was told I would be getting chemotherapy for 4 months, my mind immediately went to enduring weeks of being bald, weak, and puking. Already reeling from my cancer diagnosis, I wasn't sure how I would cope. Luckily, chemotherapy treatment has improved for many patients, including me.

Don't make any mistakes, I did lose my hair. Almost all of it. When outlining my treatment schedule, my medical oncologist started with the announcement, "All your hair will fall out." When your doctor starts with that, it sounds particularly ominous. I mean, I might die here and you are starting with hair loss as something to prepare for?! I could not have cared less. Maybe because of that my hair decided, quite miraculously, to hold on. Every time I saw my doctor, he'd look at my hair and smile. "It's going to fall out!" And I'd smile and say, "OK." Then, one day it just gave up. Overnight, my hair started to eject itself from my head. Strands on my jacket, hunks on my pillow, clumps on the shower floor. One memorable day in September while I was walking my kids to school, a whole section of hair I had just tucked behind my ear blew past my face and just kept going. Ick. That night, with the help of my husband and with my boys looking on, we cut, snipped and shaved until I had a mohawk. Out in the world, I had a long brown wig that closely resembled my original hair. At home and wigless, my family was treated to punk mom. But it really did make it harder to keep the wig on when I was in public. So, eventually we went right down to cue ball. I also lost most of my eyebrows and eyelashes, my legs and, well, everywhere else. I felt cold and featureless. I described it to my husband like being pulled too soon from the primordial sludge. So I didn't pause in front of the mirror too often. And I invested in some cozy knitted caps to keep me warm.

I also had days when I was weak and sore. As treatment progressed over weeks and months,  I came to days when I was so cold I had to take to my bed with a hot corn bag and tea. Some days I shook so hard my stomach muscles hurt for days after. But, later I would rally and feel almost normal. My immune system took a hit, and I was vulnerable to every bug that entered my house (did I mention that I have two small, germy boys AND that I was doing chemo during the height of the H1N1 outbreak?). Colds hit me hard and I found it hard to shake off a few chronic coughs. But eventually, I would recover. My joints hurt, a lot. Getting up out of a chair, I felt like I was in my 90's. But, in spite of that, most days I was able to walk for over half an hour at a time. Other days, particularly the cold and rainy ones, I took my mother and father-in law up on their generous offers to walk my son to and from school.  My mother took over laundry detail for the bulk of my treatment, saving me from all the lugging, pulling and hauling involved with doing that for 3 males. And wonderful people brought many of our meals. But I did almost all my other housework.  So, even though the weakness came, it was manageable.

What never came was the thing I feared the most - the vomiting. I was often nauseated. I could get very, very green. On those days, my boys would follow me around the house with great love, offering buckets, towels and cuddles. If it was particularly bad, I would skip meals and choose instead to sip ginger ale and nibble on crackers. Add to the nausea the fact that food usually just tasted downright horrific (see my earlier posting about that!), and eating lost most of its joy for me. But I never vomited. The new steroids did a very good job of easing me through the treatment and allowing me to keep food in and weight on. I can't imaging how weak I would have felt if weight loss ever became an issue.

So, if you are getting ready to do chemo, or know someone who is, I hope this gives you some comfort. While you may look like a cancer patient, you may not always feel like one. I had many, many days of feeling pretty OK. Especially compared to what I thought I was in for. So I guess my advice is, if you and your doctors feel that chemotherapy is the best treatment option for your cancer, you do not need to fear it. The road may be easier for you than you think.

But...if you are doing chemo now and you are experiencing worse side effects than I did, please don't suffer in silence. If talking to your doctor doesn't get you any relief, talk to your nurses. Mine were full of advice for coping with nausea, constipation, sleeplessness, and joint pain. If you still need help, you may want to consider complementary medicine options. If you are in BC, click here for more information. The Canadian Cancer Society also has good information on its site, including descriptions of types of therapies that offer relief for a variety of side effects related to cancer treatment. In the United States, try the National Cancer Institute's website.

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