How to Handle Chemo

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Welcome back to my series on smart tips for getting through chemo.

    Chemotherapy: Get ready for those side effects.

    Chemotherapy: yuck!

    That’s your first reaction, right? I’m going to lose my hair. I’m going to be sick. It’s going to be awful!

    Well, it ain’t necessarily so. Science and medicine have come a long, long way since the days when chemo automatically meant weeks and weeks of vomiting. Yes, there are side effects. But more and more, there are drugs available to treat those side effects. Don’t assume you’re going to be sick as a dog; yeah, you might be, but you just might fly through treatment without turning a hair (whoops, bad metaphor…)
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    Locating the Side Effects in Your Body

    Chemotherapy destroys only cells that are dividing; and since cancer cells divide so quickly, they’re the perfect target for chemo. Unfortunately, so are other cells in your body that divide quickly: A) cells that grow your hair, B) cells in your gastrointestinal tract; C) cells in your bone marrow; and D) cells in your reproductive system. Thus, the possibility of side effects: hair loss; mouth/throat sores, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting; infection, due to a lower than usual number of disease-fighting white blood cells; and premature menopause. Researchers work constantly to narrow chemotherapy’s focus, so that only cancer cells are affected; they’ve come a long way, but for now, side effects remain.

    Ask your oncologist to outline the possible side effects of the particular treatment you’ll receive. Remember that word “possible”–no one can tell you for sure how YOUR body will react. Side effects are evidence of the pervasiveness of these powerful chemicals traveling through your body. The good news is, they’re seeking out and killing cancer cells; the bad news is, there’s collateral battle damage, and you’ll feel and see it.

    Starting at the Top: Hair Loss

    The one side effect that’s virtually certain to occur, if it’s common with the drugs you’re taking, is hair loss; you’re not going to dodge that bullet, so figure out what you’re going to do about it. Plan early to get a wig (or not). If you don’t opt for a wig, think about hats (what kind), scarves, or going “bald and beautiful.”

    If you’re considering no head covering–which I decided on, once I’d discovered that wearing a hat indoors resulted in my running into doorjambs constantly–think about what you’re going to wear outdoors, if the weather demands some sort of protection. If it’s summer, get a sun hat that covers your head, ears, and neck; if winter, dig out a hat AND scarf; you’d be surprised how much even short hair does to conserve body heat.

    You may be lucky; your hair may just thin out, rather than disappear completely; but you’ll still need some extra protection, from both heat and cold. Finally, understand that hair loss probably means ALL hair: underarm, leg, and pubic, eyebrows and eyelashes. Probably none of us misses shaving legs or underarms; eyebrows can be penciled in, if you feel the need. The rest of it–well, it’s interesting; and temporary.

  • Other Side Effects?
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    Other side effects (and believe me, there are tons of possibilities) may or may not affect you. (You may even have your very own side effect, something that makes the doctor scratch his head and say, “Well, I’ve never seen THAT before!” We’re all unique; the doctor can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen.) You’ll almost certainly be fatigued; don’t try to pack your days with as much activity as normal. And you’ll be at risk for infection; you may think about avoiding errands that take you out in public at the busiest times of the day. You’ll want to avoid crowds in general, and wash your hands a lot.

    One last hint: Don’t bring a favorite snack to your first treatment. If you find yourself becoming queasy, that food will never be a favorite again, I guarantee it!

    Next Up in My Series on Chemo

    Read my December 4 blog on chemo treatments, and strategies for minimizing their effect on your life.

Published On: November 29, 2006