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Chemotherapy – What I learnt along the way

If you have ever heard those dreaded words, “You have cancer” it is likely your world has abruptly and cruelly been turned upside down.  The carefree life you had, your plans and ambitions suddenly seem uncertain, and there are endless tears, sadness and confusion in their place. And the treatment is just as scary as the diagnosis. Finding out you need chemotherapy can be an incredibly emotional and challenging experience.

I can remember those feelings all too well, the fear and worry. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33, and at a time when I should have been planning my future career and starting a family, I was left worried and confused as to what lay ahead. I wish someone could have hugged me tight and given me the following advice to help me through.

Fear Versus Reality

It's perfectly normal to be anxious about chemotherapy, especially if you've never had it before. But often the fear of the unknown is worse than the reality. For many, chemotherapy is never as bad as they feared. Many of our customers and friends have commented that it is horrible but it is ‘doable’. And I think that sums it up. Horrible but doable. Because let’s face it, what is the alternative?

Advancement in scientific knowledge and medicines have allowed unwanted side effects to be more effectively treated, there is more accessible support be it from counsellors, online forums, and charities and you will be assigned a cancer care team who should help with any fears or anxieties.

Never Ever Google

Take care when you are first diagnosed, emotions are running at an all-time high. There is a real temptation to google, to bombard yourself with information and read other people’s stories. Please refrain from doing this. There are out of date ‘facts’, statistics and stories about other people’s cancer, not your cancer nor your treatment plan. It is important to remember no two people have the same experience. Stick to trusted sites such as Macmillan and Breast Cancer Care.

Chemo Is Not Poison

Chemotherapy has often been referred to as ‘poison’ and I can see why. When in the throes of treatment, and you are feeling at your lowest point, it is all too easy (and understandable) to blame the treatment (along with anything else) for the way you feel. After all, in order to kill cancer cells, chemotherapy drugs are required but these also destroy healthy cells. The result: These indiscriminate drugs wreak havoc on your body, causing many people to experience unpleasant side effects.

But what if the very thing that makes you feel and look unwell is the very thing that is the most effective way to treat and cure you of this horrible disease. After all, brilliant and inspirational scientists have dedicated their lives to create it. And thank goodness, because chemotherapy really is a crucial, life-saving medicine that has saved thousands of lives over the years. 

Remember you are fighting cancer, try not to fight the treatment.

Chemo Nurses Rock

I am pretty sure they are superhuman. They have seen and dealt with it all. They know what they’re doing and want to make you well. Let them inspire you.

I was super lucky as my Macmillan Breast Care Nurse was an absolute godsend. She was present at my diagnosis and spoke to my husband and me for a couple of hours afterwards, she attended all of my subsequent appointments and always took me aside after each one to see how I was feeling and if I had any questions. Find that rock of a nurse.

Personal Comfort Is Everything

When you are having treatment, surgery or attending your appointments take some home comforts with you. These will really help. For example your favourite pyjamas so you don’t have to wear the scratchy hospital ones, a bath robe, pillow or even just a pillow case so you have a familiar smell, blanket, slippers or warm socks to make you feel more relaxed and comfortable.

Other items such as puzzle books, cards or board games are all good distractions to help you while away the time.

Although hospital food is (allegedly) improving, some extra snacks never go amiss. But be warned chemo leaves an odd taste in your mouth. Your go-to comfort food may no longer taste quite right, but this is temporary and your taste buds will return back to normal, you just need to work out what doesn’t taste like sandpaper in the meantime. 

Take Back Some Control

It is true you may never feel safe or complacent about your health again. But taking back some control over your body, your life and what happens to it is almost therapeutic given the circumstances. You will feel so much more positive when you have solid treatment and surgery plans in place.

Being prepared for each stage of my treatment and surgery gave me back some control and helped ease the anticipation and fear of the unknown. It also helped keep me busy and passed the time in the run up to the next daunting stage of treatment.

It is also a time to be selfish, to make yourself the priority and learn to rely on others. It’s a time when for a matter of months or perhaps years, you need to learn to pull back, take time out and stop to think what you need.  It can be really hard accepting help – but you know that if the tables were turned that you would do all you could do help someone else.

You Are Not Alone

Deal with it in a way that suits YOU and YOUR circumstances. Some people are very open about their diagnosis and treatment and are happy to share their experiences in blogs and on social media. Others wish to remain more private and do all they can to assume normality. There’s no right or wrong way to deal with it - you just have to deal with it in the way that is best for you.

But however you choose to deal with your diagnosis it is important not to feel alone or isolated. Finding the best support network be it online, or face-to-face can be invaluable. After all it is likely to be a roller-coaster of emotions, make sure you don’t face it all on your own.

For more information on different aspects of chemotherapy go to Chemo For Beginners - an A-Z guide on all things "C"

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Sara Lee - October 6, 2017

Thank you for this down to earth information, as a person who almost never asks for help ,even from my family, the advice to put myself first is hard to take. I am a stoic person and not one to make a fuss if you say it is doable than I can do it too.

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