An Insider’s Guide to Starting Chemo

It's pretty daunting to walk into a chemo center for the first time. We're here to help you get a handle on how to prepare so you know what to expect before, during, and after.

by Sabrina Skiles Patient Advocate

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sabrina Skiles, and I am 35 years old. I’m happily married to my husband, Chris, we have two beautiful boys, and we love traveling as a family. I also have breast cancer. I am now part of the “1 in 8 women diagnosed with breast cancer this year” statistic. I had a lumpectomy in August, and I just had my second round of chemo to kill any rogue cells that might be hanging out in my body.

Breast cancer and chemotherapy are two words I never thought would be part of my personal vocabulary, but now they're part of my #chemolife. Since my diagnosis, I've been talking with lots of other breast-cancer survivors and gathering up the advice I know I'll need to get through the next 20 weeks or so. I thought I'd share them with you, too.

Keep Your Day as Normal as Possible

There is already so much anxiety that comes with something you’ve probably never experienced. So keeping your day as normal as possible will lessen the impact when you’re sitting in that chemo chair. I schedule my chemo days when both my boys are in school. That way, I drop them off at school, go to my chemo appointment and come right back home to rest until it’s time to pick them up. Or, I have a family member pick up my kids on their way home. That way the boys’ day stays the same and so does mine—at least as much as it can.

Sabrina with longtime best friend, Loni Peterson.
Sabrina with longtime best friend, Loni Peterson, who flew from Colorado to Texas to be a support system. / Sabrina Skiles

Have a Chemo Buddy

Bring your spouse, sister, brother, a best friend, or neighbor. Someone you trust who will keep the mood light. Your mental health is as much a priority as your physical health. Your chemo buddy will keep that smile on your face when you need it the most. On some days, it might not be possible to have a chemo buddy, and that’s OK. Just make sure to bring an adult coloring book (seriously, they are the best!), a crossword puzzle, your favorite magazine, or catch up on that rom-com you’ve been dying to watch. Soak up the quiet and the fact that you don’t have to entertain anyone!

Get a Smoothie, Frappachino, or Ice Chips

Whatever your vice is, get it to sip on or chew on at the exact moment they are administering your chemo drugs. “Having something cold in your mouth freezes your taste buds, keeps them intact, and helps prevent mouth sores that can be caused by the chemotherapy drugs,” says Aneela Bemet, B.S.N., at Kaiser Permanente. Bemet has been an oncology nurse for five years and before that was an ER nurse for six years. I took this advice to heart and grabbed a smoothie on the way to my first chemo session.

Prep Your Port Site

Ask your oncologist for lidocaine cream to apply to your port site. This needs to happen at least an hour before your appointment so the cream has time to do its numbing magic. I received this advice from Kenzie Libbesmeier, who was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and started on Remicade, which is delivered via an infusion every four weeks. It can be a little uncomfortable when the nurse accesses your port, especially if it's the first time you've had one. That's me. To be honest, I still feel so weird every time they have to access mine because it’s a part of my body that wasn’t there before. I’m still adjusting to this “new normal.”

Ask to Speak to a Dietitian

At your infusion center, there should be a dietitian on site who can provide cancer-related diet and nutrition information for you. The meeting will last approximately 20 to 30 minutes, and it's vital to ensure you have the proper nutrition know-how post-chemotherapy. Among the many things we discussed, there is one piece of advice that has stuck with me: “When you’re hungry, eat what you want, but everything in moderation.” I told her my fear of losing weight since I’m already petite—and have been my entire life. She said undergoing chemotherapy is already a lot on a newly diagnosed patient, and worring about what to eat and what not to eat shouldn’t be added stress. Just eat when you’re hungry, even if it means a slice of pizza or ice cream here and there. Everything is okay if it’s in moderation.

Get a Notebook and Record Everything

I’m talking everything—what time you get up, when you take your medication, what you eat, what you’re craving (or not craving), energy levels, and beyond. This is especially important on the days immediately following your chemo treatment when those side effects are really kicking in. For me it was days three, four, and five when I felt the worst headaches and extremely low energy levels. But recording exactly how you’re feeling is vital to your journey. That way you can plan ahead for the next week of treatment, and on the days that you’re feeling bad, you’ll know precisely when to ask for help. Whether that’s someone to pick up your children from school, someone to pick up your groceries, or someone to stay with you to help cook a meal. People want to help. Let them help.

Manage Your Symptoms

You may have heard this bit of advice before and rolled your eyes. Yup, that was me. Who hasn’t? But, put your pride aside this time and stay on top of your medication. You never want to wait until the side effects show themselves to take the drugs that can help lessen or prevent them altogether. Because then you have to wait at least half an hour to get the relief you need. Get your prescriptions, know how much time you should wait between taking each dose, and set your timer. Your mind and body will thank you later.

Ask Questions

Never be afraid to ask for what you and your body deserves. This disease may be new to you, but it’s not new to your oncology nurse or doctor. If something doesn’t feel right, ask your doctor or nurse. Take my post-chemo headaches, for example. Everyone seemed so confused about the constant ache, but after multiple calls to my oncologist and oncology nurse, they suggested I go into the infusion center for fluids. So, I did. And you know what, it helped! When I wasn’t getting the answers I needed, I kept asking. You deserve to know. Remember, no question is a stupid question. You are not alone!

Sabrina and her son.
Sabrina and her son having some quality R&R time, with a heavy dose of coffee. / Sabrina Skiles

Rest, Relax, Recuperate

I will say it again. Rest, relax, recuperate. Can I be honest? This has been the hardest part. Well, that and asking for help. We addressed that. So let’s talk R&R. “Rest allows our bodies to rebuild cells and perform repairs to vital organs,” as stated on the Cure Today website. Think about it. You are probably going through something your body has never gone through before. Even major surgeries require a period of rest for complete healing to happen. And we need to heal, now more than ever.

Sabrina Skiles
Meet Our Writer
Sabrina Skiles

Sabrina Skiles is a lifestyle and psoriasis blogger, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer just two days after her 35th birthday. She created her blog, Homegrown Houston as a lifestyle resource for millennial women and those living with chronic conditions. She shares daily inspiration from health and wellness, motherhood and marriage to managing a chronic disease while living a stylish life. Sabrina is also a volunteer mentor, coach and social ambassador for the National Psoriasis Foundation. You can find her sharing #chemolife and psoriasis tips while living a stylish life on Instagram @sabrinaskiles.