Chemotherapy, or simply chemo, is treatment with drugs to kill cancer cells, or slow their progression. As someone who has battled eight cancers, chemotherapy has been a large part of my life. Some of it was a very tough road to travel. In fact, many people with cancer might consider chemotherapy to be synonymous with hell. Whether you have a loved one going through treatment or are about to start your own journey, here’s what you should know.

I have metastatic disease now, meaning cancer has spread to more than one place in my body. So I don’t get the type of chemo most people think of – through an IV, typically in the hospital, called infusion chemo. Instead, for my chemo, I take pills every day. And I only have to go to the hospital once a month for an injection. The injection helps promote healthy bone growth since the cancer is attacking my bones.

With the pills, I still have the usual and unusual side effects of chemo, although they are milder than before when I had infusion chemo. Pain is a way of life, and only time will tell how I’ll feel as my condition progresses.

Educate yourself

  • Know there are many resources and services available to you that may help, including your medical team, the American Cancer Society, and many nonprofit groups.
  • Ask your doctor if there is a different drug you can take that would cause less side effects.
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Sometimes the car won’t start. Some days you’ll feel too ill or too tired to drive home. Have someone there to help.

With infusion chemo, you go to the hospital for a few hours of treatment. Then, you may have days of side effects. They depend on the drug or combo of drugs you get. Side effects vary and my include aches and pains, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and the dreaded hair loss. With some drugs, you could have mouth sores and loss of appetite, taste, smell, or all three. It’s pretty tough, but your hope that chemo will do its job helps you get up and go for treatment.

On your first chemo day, you’ll most likely wake up in the morning with fear in your heart because you’re not sure what’s ahead. Bring a book, a journal, your knitting, or something else to help pass the time. It usually takes a long time to get chemo through an IV.

Management tips

  • Stay aware of any mood changes. Fear, confusion, and frustration can interfere with your life as you navigate this illness.
  • Keep a journal to track how your body and your mind feels. This can also help you keep track of routine activities in case of side effects.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to delegate your tasks.
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What to bring on your first day of chemo »

A secondary or underlying condition can cause serious damage. I have an underlying bleeding disorder, which caused a rare side effect, hand-foot syndrome. This caused a slow leakage of blood from the small capillaries in my hands and feet, which soon developed into major bleeding. As a result, I had to stay in the hospital for five days and lost eight toenails.

Brain fog can make you feel mentally out of it. Plus, your hormones may be all over the place (and that’s true for men and women).

Ask for help

  • For clarity and to make sure you both understand, ask your family and friends to be specific about what they’re willing to do to help you. Some people may be willing to help with shopping but not the laundry.
  • Have a buddy who can help you remember or understand what your medical team is saying. They can help you write in your journal.
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Rarely does one person’s chemo journey match another’s. So always remember that what you hear about chemo won’t always apply to you. Double check with your healthcare provider to verify what information is pertinent to your condition. Don’t hesitate to talk with a social worker, counselor, or even your minister or spiritual advisor about your journey.

For the who, what, and where details about chemotherapy treatments, visit the American Cancer Society (ACS) website, and go to the chemotherapy page. It has about a dozen links with the details of chemotherapy, including an easy-to-read guide. You can always call the ACS on their 24-hour hotline (1-800-227-2345) with any questions.

Anna Renault is a published author, public speaker, and radio show host. She is also a cancer survivor, having had multiple bouts of cancer over the past 40 years. Plus, she’s a mother and grandmother. When she’s not writing, she’s often found reading or spending time with family and friends.

Keep reading: Working with your chemotherapy healthcare team »