Chemotherapy 101 Part III: Surviving Chemotherapy

Patient Expert

Jacki Donaldson fills you in on what more is in store once you have completed your treatment, including side effects, additional treatments, and common emotional reactions.

Part III: Surviving Chemotherapy

The Short and Long Of It

Short-term side effects will subside after the last chemo dose - your hair will grow back (although be prepared for change - I went from straight blonde to curly brown!) and you'll regain your strength. There may be long-term side effects. Adriamycin can be toxic to the heart - so future monitoring tests may be necessary. The drugs Taxol and Taxotere can cause long-term nerve issues such as tingling and numbness in the hands and feet. Fatigue may also linger, and mental fogginess, referred to as "chemo brain" is possible.

Fertility Issues

For pre-menopausal women, chemotherapy can affect the ovaries and cause chemo-induced menopause. It happened to me, and was marked mostly by hot flashes. Once treatment was complete, my ovaries recovered and my fertility is now restored. For some, damage is irreversible. The general rule is that the closer a woman is to menopausal age, the more likely it is that chemo-induced menopause will be permanent. If you'd like to have children after treatment, talk to your doctor early on to determine your best treatment plan.

What More Is In Store

After chemotherapy is over, women who are ER/PR positive may take a pill like Tamoxifen for five years to prevent recurrences. Postmenopausal women may receive other drugs as an alternative to Tamoxifen which reduce estrogen in the body. Special precautions and monitoring should be taken to limit or prevent osteoporosis. Women like me, who are Her2 positive, may receive infusions of Herceptin. This 52-week therapy, with treatments every three weeks, has some long-term implications for the heart - monitoring tests are necessary - but virtually no short-term effects. There is no hair loss, nausea, or drops in blood counts.

When You're Done

When chemo is complete, you may feel great relief. I did. But you also may feel an odd sense of regret that treatment has ended - because chemo actively fights cancer and when it's over, you may feel like you should be doing something productive to keep cancer at bay. For some women, treatment does continue with radiation, hormone therapy, or drugs like Herceptin. But for some, this may be the final stop - and it can be a truly joyous occasion.

My hope for you as you exit the maze of chemotherapy is that you find a silver lining in your experience - that you can somehow make it matter, that you can spread hope to others as they embark on the same journey. And I hope that you can one day look back with clarity and perspective on an unplanned, unintended, unbelievable adventure.