Although your doctor or nurse can prepare you for many of the side effects of chemotherapy, there’s nothing like hearing from people who’ve gone through cancer treatment.
Here’s what four breast cancer patients and survivors say they wish someone had told them.
Everyone’s heard about nausea, hair loss, and fatigue, but what surprises can chemotherapy bring?
Chemotherapy may come with side effects that you don’t expect, or that may seem odd. Even the side effects you’ve heard about can come with surprises.
Terry Arnold from Houston was prepared to lose her hair. She remembers it falling out in clumps before she shaved the rest of it off. But the real trouble started when her bare head broke out in painful acne. It made wearing a wig difficult, and her doctor didn’t know how to help. Fortunately, someone suggested coal tar shampoo. After using it once or twice, her skin cleared right up.
As for other physical changes, Arnold also gained weight quickly. Her feet started to swell and she lost her toenails. She managed by buying new clothes and comfortable, but inexpensive, shoes in four different sizes. She also found relief by soaking her feet in a mix of hydrogen peroxide and water.
Why is my nose bleeding and my mouth sore?
Donna Heckler, author of Living Like a Lady When You Have Cancer, started having bloody noses during her chemotherapy treatments. It worried her until she learned that it was just a sign of dryness. Her dry skin also scratched easily, sometimes turning into “weird” infections. Thankfully, moisturizing creams and ointments helped soothe her dry skin.
While undergoing treatment at Overlook Medical Center in New Jersey, Lockey Maisonneuve suffered from mouth sores. A woman she met at a support group recommended Biotène Mouth Rinse. This simple solution worked: She found it much easier to eat, and she had more energy and felt less depressed.
“It’s like a waterfall effect,” Maisonneuve said. “Things that seem insignificant may not be.”
What about my teeth?
Heckler regrets not seeing a dentist before beginning chemotherapy. Chemo can harm salivary glands, causing dry mouth and a loss of protective saliva.
She didn’t find out until later that prescription toothpaste might have protected her teeth from decay. The National Institutes of Health recommends seeing a dentist one month before your chemotherapy sessions begin.
What happens after a session ends?
Michele Levy’s biggest surprise was that she had to have shots after each of her sessions. Levy, who received her treatment at the Pluta Cancer Center in Henrietta, New York, didn’t know that these shots were required to boost white blood cell levels. She experienced spasms and pain after her first series of shots, and she ended up going to the emergency room.
She learned that taking medications, like pain relievers and muscle relaxants, before the shots helped ease her pain. Anti-anxiety medications also helped Levy sleep more comfortably.
Will I be able to exercise ?
Maisonneuve was a personal exercise trainer for about a year and a half before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But during treatment, she was too depressed and uncomfortable to exercise. She felt as though her body had betrayed her.
Any kind of movement was difficult. Gradually, she started opening her shoulders up. When she could get her arms up over her head, it was a “huge triumph.”
She has since launched a rehabilitative exercise program for breast cancer survivors to regain movement after cancer and its treatments.
“At least ninety percent of the people who walk in are afraid to move,” she said. But gentle stretching and exercise can restore mobility safely.
Where can I get the advice and support I need?
All four of these survivors recommended that women going through treatment slow down and listen to their bodies. During chemotherapy, don’t just “push through.”
Still, that doesn’t mean you have to put your entire life on hold. Levy was diagnosed with cancer just before a family beach vacation. Her family considered canceling the trip, but she decided it was just what she needed. Thinking about that trip helped carry her through treatment.
Oftentimes, the best source of support is your family and friends. Online forums and support groups are other great places to find advice and support from women who’ve been there.
Most importantly, know that you’re not alone. Your doctors, healthcare team, family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors are there for you.