Chemotherapy is not a one-size-fits-all experience. When faced with chemotherapy, many women turn to online research, but reading about the treatment and the process only goes so far. Oftentimes, talking with other patients or survivors can be more helpful.
Thirty-seven real women who chose to undergo chemotherapy were interviewed for this article. While none of these women escaped unscathed, they all made it through the treatment and related side effects. Their insights, wisdom, and even humor can provide clarity and hope to those just beginning the chemotherapy journey or to those who are uncertain about the realities of treatment.
“I expected to be sicker but the anti-nausea drugs I took made my chemo tolerable.”
“I feared that I would be nauseous and vomit continuously. That did not happen. I had mild nausea only.”
“I didn’t really know what to expect. The biggest challenges were tiredness, nausea, [and] chemo brain.”
Although there are general or typical reactions you can anticipate during chemotherapy, everyone reacts to the treatment differently. Your expectations and ideas may not be what actually happens.
Speak openly with your oncologist and learn about your individual treatment plan, including the chemotherapy drugs and other medications you will be taking. Ask what you should do to help prevent side effects, how to manage any side effects you have, and what side effects you should report.
“The biggest challenge was to accept my limitations and learn to be dependent on others.”
“I had to plan to do only one thing each day, like cook dinner.”
“Chemo and recovering became the primary focus in my life, followed by enjoying my good weeks with friends and family.”
Chemotherapy can be draining, both physically and mentally. For women who are used to being self-sufficient, learning to accept help from friends and family can be difficult. Just remember: You’re undergoing the treatment in the hope of returning to your strong, capable self.
Listen to your body. You may feel the urge to push through and continue with your normal schedule, but being too active may affect your recovery period. Get enough rest and make sure to fuel your body. Proper nutrition is necessary during recovery. The American Cancer Society recommends eating more lean proteins, like fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy. These items are necessary to help heal healthy tissues from damaging chemotherapy and also fight infections.
“The most bothersome side effects were ones I had not expected.”
“The list of side effects they give you is SO long, but you really don't know what it will be like…Everyone is different and responds differently.”
“I would be so exhausted I could hardly drag myself out of bed.”
As much as you try to prepare yourself for common side effects such as fatigue, weakness, hair loss, and nausea, your experience may be very different from what you expected. Some side effects, such as dry mouth and diarrhea, are not as noticeable to outsiders and are therefore not as widely discussed. Your body is unique, so how it responds will also be unique.
After your first treatment, you’ll quickly find out how your body is reacting to the treatment. If you’re having a difficult time, let your cancer team know. They can probably help mitigate difficult side effects. It’s also important to talk with your family and loved ones before and during your treatments about how you’re feeling. Having a strong support system can help you recuperate.
“I knew I'd lose my hair and be very ill. I did not realize that most women gain weight during chemo.”
“Losing my hair made me having cancer very visible.”
“Chemo aged me. My eyes had dark circles, but my skin actually cleared up a bit.”
Hair loss may be one of the most familiar side effects, but that doesn’t make it less traumatic. You may also experience other changes in your physical appearance, such as weight gain or loss.
The American Cancer Society’s Look Good Feel Better class offers women the opportunity to try a new look by experimenting with wigs, hats, and scarves. Women also learn makeup tips and tricks.
“Before chemo, I wanted to be superwoman and bounce back super quick. I wanted to be the one with no negative side effects, who could hold it all together.”
“My supervisor was wonderful and wasn’t strict with how much time I needed off. But I continued to work all through chemo.”
“My immediate team was aware of the treatment and compensated for the fact that I was physically there 100 percent of the time but only working to about 50 percent of my usual capacity.”
The reality is you can’t control how your body is going to react to chemotherapy. Many women have to pull back and aren’t able to continue working as before.
Listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs. Talk to your boss, manager, or HR department to discuss a lighter work schedule.
“The experience made my relationships with my husband, parents, and a couple of friends stronger. I always had someone there with me.”
“Once chemo started, I thought, ‘I can't do this. I'd rather die of cancer. This has GOT to be worse.’ Then my 5-year old came home, bubbling with life and love, and I realized that I had to try. He needs his mommy.”
“I hated people treating me like I was sick. On the positive side, it definitely strengthened my relationships with close family and made me appreciate my close friends and colleagues more.”
Sometimes your loved ones can be the best support system. You may find they can provide you with the strength to push through the hard times.
Even if you’re blessed with having a strong family and friend network, having an outside support group can be beneficial. It’s helpful to talk to others who have gone through, or are going through, a similar experience. Ask your cancer team about a support group in your area or join one online.
“I’m still experiencing side effects almost a year later. I hope that goes away soon.”
“I found out how strong I really am.”
“The thing that surprised me the most was that chemotherapy, while no walk in the park, was not as bad as I expected.”
Not knowing what’s ahead or what to expect can be scary. Some women may become frustrated by the unexpected. Others may discover something about themselves that’s inspirational.
While preparing for the unknown may be impossible, anticipating that there will likely be bumps, delays, and roadblocks during your treatment and recovery can make dealing with them less stressful. Being patient with yourself and spending time reflecting on your needs can be helpful.
“It was not what I imagined, but I would do it again if I found out I had cancer again.”
“Until you do the chemo, it is hard to imagine the fatigue.”
“It’s doable and manageable with all the anti-nausea/anti-anxiety drugs available.”
Chemotherapy isn’t easy, but it can be manageable. With advances in medicine and research, you have more options and choices than ever before to make the treatment less miserable.
Remember that you’re not alone. Women just like you have gone through the same journey. Hearing and listening to them may make the process less scary or wearisome.