7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Chemo

Hands and feet in ice!

Chemo drunk is a feeling I can’t justly describe with words and adjectives.

I’ll take you back a bit: It’s December 21 and I’ve just finished my last chemo session at the hospital. I’m home, trying to have a conversation with my mom, but my eyes keep fixating on the velvet glow from a Yankee Candle. She says something funny and I laugh, a few seconds too late.

My mind is soupy and slow, like bisque that’s started to congeal. I hear words but my thoughts are lost in the emptiness of space. I meticulously toil over sentences, calculating each one through my head with the speed of an early edition fax machine. Something metallic catches my eye, the hardware on my mother’s purse, and now I’m hypnotized by how the silver reflects the flickering candle. It feels like my eyes are lost. They don’t know what to look toward, so they find light and drift to it drunkenly. My body is buzzing inside. I’m an old noisy refrigerator.

This feeling is nothing like alcohol intoxication. This is what it feels like to be dying. My cells, both good and bad, are being devoured as the poisonous cocktail of chemotherapy drugs flows through my veins. I’m being brought to the brink of death, just so I can rebuild. It’s war; destroy the enemy with brute force, but the victor suffers the casualties of battle as well.

You don’t want to be left wounded on the battlefield. Chemo is an experience we’re mostly unprepared to handle. My first few times were terrifying and I didn’t know what I was doing or what to expect. So, I’d like to share seven things I wish I had known about chemo before I started.

  1. You should drink so much water during chemo that you will feel like a water balloon. If you can’t drink water, try Gatorade, juice, or popsicles. I suggest you pack a lunch like you’re in third grade and your mom has just let you buy anything from the grocery store. Chemo is time-consuming and boring; knowing that you will have a few hours to sit around and eat whatever you want is something to look forward to.
  2. Ice your feet and toes! I’m shocked at how many hospitals don’t practice this method to prevent neuropathy. My infusion nurse would bring me two buckets of ice water and rubber gloves before chemo. I’d soak my hands/feet for one long, miserable hour during Taxotere (docetaxel) treatment. It’s not fun, but I never had any neuropathy or damage to my nails.
  3. You’re toxic. Your pee and saliva are toxic. The nurse will tell you that you need to flush the toilet at least twice and don’t share food or drinks with people.
  4. Chemo isn’t the only drug you’ll be getting. Steroids, antihistamines, anti-nausea and anti-anxiety drugs are just some of the usual pre-chemo meds. I took Emend (aprepitant), which is a three-day pack of pills that prevents nausea. I never threw up
  5. Dress warmly; hospitals are cold. Bring fuzzy socks or slippers for after your feet get an ice bath.
  6. If your hair falls out, it will start on the 14th day following chemo. And it kind of hurts. It felt like dull needles digging into my scalp. By the time I shaved my head, I just wanted it gone. I also was a little drunk (champagne), because I had a head-shaving party. … Which leads me to my last point. …
  7. You can still have a normal life. I had a party two weeks after my first chemo. I got drunk. I shaved my head. I cried. I sang Elton John songs with my friends until 3 a.m. I was alive. I was grateful. And I’m still alive because I never once let cancer or chemo stop me from living. You’re going to be fine. Drink the martini. Buy the fancy shoes. Keep on living your life, but with a tad more moxie.
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