Preparing for Chemo

Preparing for chemotherapy probably sounds like preparing to die. The word chemotherapy is frightening. It conjures up images of hair loss, vomiting, and pure misery. Truth is, chemo sucks, but if you're prepared it sucks a lot less.

How do I know this? Because I've been a chemotherapy patient since August 2005. I started with moderately high dose IV chemotherapy on a three week cycle. This lasted until January 2007 when I switched to weekly pills at home. After 23 cycles of IV chemo, and over 365 doses of weekly chemo, I'm an expert at preparing. Tomorrow is chemo day. Since I'm preparing for it, I thought I'd share what I've learned.

Preparing for Chemo

Every chemo protocol is different. They don't all have the same side effects, but a lot of these drugs cause nausea, fatigue, taste and smell changes, and hair loss. So, I'll focus on those.

If your protocol requires several IV cycles, get a port. I waited to get a port and scarred the insides of my veins. IV's don't work for me very well anymore. Everything about ports will be carefully explained to you by your doctor, so I won't do that here. Wait, did I say everything? I meant almost everything.

What no one will tell you is the rubber inside the port might make a popping sensation the first time it's accessed. It didn't hurt, but the pop scared the shit out of me! So, if it happens, don't freak out like I did. It only happens the first time, after that it's fine. The nurse cleans your skin, pokes the needle in the port and it's over. It's much easier than an IV. If you're needle phobic, or sensitive to pain, ask for Emla cream. It numbs the skin like magic. Remember, you don't have to watch what the nurse is doing. Hold still and look somewhere else.

The process of getting chemo might take hours. Sitting in a recliner in a treatment room, attached to a pole, with a pump and IV bags, is stressful. It is also boring as hell. It's not stuck in an airport boring. I mean it is fourth grade, staring out the window on a spring day while the teacher drones on about random bullshit, boring. If you don't have a tablet, now is the time to buy one, or borrow one. Playing a thousand games of Angry Birds, or watching movies, will help with the boredom and stress.

Nausea is a common side effect of many drugs. It's also a scary one because we've all puked and we know it sucks. Your doctor will prescribe a combination of anti-nasuea meds. Some will go in your IV before the chemo meds. Some you'll take home. Once you get home, take your anti nausea meds before you feel sick. If you wait, you'll puke. Trust me. I made that mistake for you so you won't have to. The anti-nausea drugs work amazingly well. If you're still nauseated, talk to your doctor. They'll change the drug combo and help you feel better.

Fatigue after chemo may be profound. I slept off and on for at least five days after each treatment. It might have been from the anti-nausea meds, or just the powerful medications. But, I was knocked on my butt for days. To deal with fatigue, plan for it like you would a trip: pay bills, do laundry, clean the fridge, arrange child and/or pet care. Next, gather food (suggestions later) and prepare a nest. It might be on the couch or your bed. Before your first treatment, figure out a quiet place where you can watch TV and sleep for days on end if necessary. You might be down for days, or up and around the next day. Either way, plan on resting. You've earned it.

Taste and smell changes. Not all drugs do this. If yours does, I'm not gonna lie to you: it sucks. I was smelling phantom scents: chemical smells and rotting smells. Fortunately for me this only lasted a few days after treatment. If you're dealing with altered sense of smell, stay away from scents you normally like. The hand lotion you love will be tainted and you'll hate it later. Avoid strong cleaners, fabric softener, and laundry soap. Remember, the weird smells aren't real. Hopefully it will be only temporary.

Taste changes also suck. My chemo drug made me feel like I was eating metal shavings. The metal taste couldn't be masked with toothpaste or mouthwash, because the foul taste had nothing to do with my mouth. It was in my brain. Sucking on lemon drops helped. Mint made it worse. But, that's me. You'll have to figure out what helps you.

Food choices while recovering from chemo also matter. Don't eat anything you normally like. Once you eat it with an altered sense of taste and smell, you'll end up hating your favorite food. Stick to bland things like crackers, rice, vanilla pudding, and vanilla wafers, with tofu or chicken breast for protein. Ginger ale helps, too.

While I was going through IV chemo, I slept six hours, woke up and ate, slept ten hours, and ate again. It was a week long haze of grazing and sleeping. Then I'd emerge from my chemo cave. My sense of taste and smell was back to normal. The nausea and fatigue was better, too. The worst of it passed and for the next few weeks, I felt much better.

Hair loss didn't go away, though. No one told me my scalp would hurt. My head was sensitive to touch. I chose to wear the softest knit hats possible. What you chose is up to you. Your hair will grow back. Promise. Mine did. We changed the medication from IV to pills and I got to grow my hair.

My weekly chemo routine is pretty similar, only feeling shitty lasts one day instead of the entire week. In a few hours, I'll be back in the chemo cave. Tomorrow I'll feel sick to my stomach and tired. I'll bolus a crap load of insulin through my pump while I eat crackers and drink ginger ale. After 14 hours, I'll eat a bland dinner. The next day I'll wake up feeling much better.

Chemotherapy sucks. There's no getting around that. But, I've learned that planning ahead makes it suck less. I look at chemo like a tollbooth on the highway of life. It's the price I pay for survival. After over 365 chemo days, it's still worth the fee.

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