Let’s be honest – you’re certainly feeling intimidated, you’re most likely terrified. You’ve got a thousand worries, a million questions. As you join the 206,200 new patients who experience cancer each year in Canada*, here we remove the mystery, the misunderstandings and the myths that surround chemotherapy treatment.
We won't sugar coat it, chemotherapy is a tough, trialling time, while tackling the cancer cells chemo also hits your healthy cells hard.
You need to be prepared. Here's how you can help your future self, before treatment begins.
An organized experience is better than a chaotic one, plan ahead as much as you can handle. If you can recruit some help, assign them some research as well and share the task. One of the big goals is to have the materials and products you will need along the way available at hand and to do what you can to give your body and mind the tools to remain strong.
Immunity function is key and will be discussed a lot throughout in this and our other articles.
1. Book in with your Dentist and Dental Hygienist
Chemo treatment can result in oral side effects, and a dental check-up before starting treatment can be essential for preventing painful mouth problems, such as sores, infections and bleeding.
Carrying an abscess, a tooth infection, a source of daily bleeding - like inflamed gums - is a constant, unnecessary immunological battle that may be easily prevented. It's like swimming with a rock tied to your foot. You move along, but much slower.
Work with your Hygienist and Dentist to untie that rock. This will help you stay on - and stay stronger - through the chemo treatment plan.
You should also be aware that if serious oral side effects set in, your cancer treatment may be delayed or even stopped altogether.
Basically, any oral infection --- which according to the World Health Organization --- a majority of people in every country have is a drag on the immune system (yes, even the richest countries and even younger people).
2. Prepare a bag for appointments and put together an at-home care-kit for recovery
From nutritional treats to non-metallic utensils and unscented shower care, you're going to need plenty of items on hand during this journey of yours.
We understand the tough after-chemo period, and we know that chemo appointments are far from a walk in the park. Viva Kits has created two chemo kits - two packages already thought of and packed up. Items such as lip balm, an eye mask and an activity book in our 'Chemo Aftercare Package', and a journal, a blanket and ginger chews in our 'Chemo Appointment Care Package' companion bag.
Find the full rundown of the included items at the bottom of this blog. There are several DIY care lists online. Some are good some are great, we interviewed people with experience, read all the lists, talked to care providers and consolidated the information when making our kits.
For DIY care kit list see our Cancer Care Gift Package Ideas article.
3. Add a Second Brain to Yours
When sitting at the Doctors office, your mind will most likely spread thinly across 5 different topics even though you know that the conversation is the only thing you should focus on. With a friend ready with questions and taking notes you will walk away with more clarity.
Medical appointments can be stressful. That stress causes most peoples retention capacity to dive. No matter how smart, fast, charming or OCD you are, there are details in your appointments with your medical team that you will miss. Take note of everything; who the doctors are, who replaces them, who they answer to. It makes it easier to direct questions later on.
I have a pretty good retention capacity but it is not perfect, having someone else with me taking notes while I lead the conversation is critical to recalling what was said later on. Unfortunately, not all procedures, requirements, restrictions etc are well documented for you. Lots has to be done by yourself after the appointment.
Talking about brain lag, it's not a bad idea to have a driver buddy if you can. Your state of mind and physical condition will influence your driving ability to and from appointments. A taxi company gift card is a great gift if your friend lives in another city and you want to help. Parking in hospitals is often super-overpriced and they don't accept flowers as payment.
How do you feel when having chemotherapy?
Intravenous chemo may feel similar to donating blood. You may have a cannula (a tube) inserted into your hand or arm, with a traditional injection to begin this process.
Alternatively your doctor may recommend that you have a device (such as a catheter, port or pump) inserted into your chest. When and what side effects you feel depends on the exact drugs used. While some can cause nausea and vomiting following a few hours and last for a short while, others can cause them to last for a few days. Most mention that during the appointment they feel light headed and energetic. With a strong recommendation not to drive after your appointments.
4. Plan ahead for side effects
Get your home ready for rest and recuperation upon your arrival.
You should also speak with your doctor about which side effects could be more expected than others, given your specific treatment plan. Chemo preparation tasks can range from simple things, such as cooking and freezing your meals ahead of time, to considering the practicalities, such as purchasing a comfortable hat. It should also include those vital thoughts about your future - such as freezing your sperm or eggs.
Your first treatment will likely involve paperwork upon arrival, with some blood taken before treatment begins (your blood may also alter the exact plan and mix of medication). For this day and every treatment day following you should dress in comfortable clothes, pack a snack and water and be prepared to wait around.When the time comes to eventually go home you'll probably feel exhausted, overwhelmed, emotional and ecstatic all at once. And once home, you should follow instructions for your meds to the letter - take time out, rest, stay hydrated and eat.
Should you take someone with you?
It's not essential that someone accompanies you to your chemo appointments, but it is advised. A friend or family member can support you and help the time pass, while also lending an extra brain for the extensive information you're given during your first appointment (they may also think of questions you haven't). It's very unlikely any procedure will take place during your first appointment, so you may not need someone to drive you home. Confirm with your doctor.
“There are many tips and medications for managing the side effects of cancer treatment and your provider can help you determine what works best for you.”
- Top tip from oncolink.org
How long do Chemo Appointments Last?
The length and frequency of your treatment depends on your treatment plan, with appointments ranging from half-hour slots to between three and four hours or overnight.
Your first visit will likely last between one and two hours, as it involves a physical examination and a consultation.
Keeping a chemotherapy side effect diary can help you remember what treatment you've had, when and what side effects you've encountered (as well as noting what you did to relieve them to know what works best for you during what time of the day).
You may also want to explore complementary therapies, such as meditation, relaxation, massage and counselling, each of which can reduce stress and anxiety.
The Immediate Aftermath
By now a new life routine has hit in and you've adapted as much as possible to it. The good news is that the treatment is over. The bad news is the side-effect management strain and effort that ensues.
Again, the good news is that you will probably be feeling pretty bad while your body and mind regroup but the treatment is over...
Once the treatments stop, the side effect peak and then gradually recede.
What are the Possible side effects of chemo?
As reported by Web MD and The American Cancer Society, common side effects of chemo include:
- Fatigue, Nausea, Bowel and bladder problems (including constipation and diarrhea)
- Mouth, tongue, and throat problems such as sores and pain with swallowing
- Nerve and muscle problems such as numbness, tingling, and pain
- 'Chemo brain' affecting concentration and focus
- Mood changes
- Weight changes
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Anaemia (low red blood cell counts)
- Hair loss
Longer-lasting and less common side effects can include:
- Sexual and fertility issues
- Nerve damage
Not everyone's hair falls out during chemo treatment, while some are lucky enough to hold onto every last strand, others may lose their hair from every part of their body.
If your hair is going to fall out, it'll do so within 2 to 3 weeks, and will regrow once treatment ceases.
"Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about which side effects are most common with your chemo, how long they might last, how bad they might be, and when you should call the doctor's office about them".
Looking Beyond this Round of Treatment
Recovery from chemo can take a year or more, with patients often doing battle with symptoms such as neuropathy, joint pain, bowel issues and oral yeast infections. Again, every person is different, and this forum thread on the Cancer Survivors Network sheds light on different chemo recovery experiences.
From one Survivor...
"Remember, when the going gets tough, take a really deep breath and trust that you will know exactly what to do. You're smart and your intuition is rock solid. You've got what it takes to live an incredible (pinch yourself) life. Don't wait. OK?
1. Find the best MDs.
2. Just juice it!
3. Eat more plants.
4. Beauty 911.
5. Take ten minutes to move.
6. Take care of your mind.
7. Adopt a furry friend.
8. Create a new tribe.
9. Unconditional acceptance.
10. Go for it".
Above all else, no matter the stage of your chemo journey, know this - you're not alone. Reach out to those you need to, when you need to. Whether this be a fellow chemo patient online or your nearest and dearest. You can do this, you will do this, and you'll realize that you're stronger than you ever knew.