It’s a long-standing joke among cancer patients that "Cancer’s not so bad, but the treatment’s a killer" This “joke" is usually delivered with a wry smile, often with a tinge of anger. But it’s true: many cancers, including nearly all types of breast cancer, are sneaky. Until they’re quite advanced, you don’t know you’re being stalked by a killer. You feel fine, nothing hurts” life is good. Then you feel a lump, and you’re no longer the healthy person you thought you were. You have cancer; you need treatment. And the pain and discomfort begin.
If this is your first experience with cancer, all of the treatment sounds just plain awful. Another cancer joke: "Thanks to modern medicine, we have numerous ways of treating cancer: Slash, poison, and burn." Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Most women have surgery and radiation. Some have surgery and chemotherapy, or possibly all three. Each comes with its own set of challenges, and each invokes its own emotional demons. Of the three, though, I think chemotherapy-a.k.a. chemo-comes fraught with the most pre-treatment fear.
When I heard I’d be undergoing chemo, I felt that "punch in the stomach" feeling you get when you’ve been delivered some really bad news. Like, the car needs a new transmission. Or your son didn’t make the baseball team, and all his friends did. It was a full-body blow to the emotions. I knew nothing about either the treatment itself, or its side effects. Sure, I’d heard horror stories: mainly about weeks and weeks of vomiting, and about losing your hair. A co-worker came into my office, sat down, looked me in the eye with great sympathy, and said, "You know, two of my friends had chemotherapy, and it was the worst experience of their lives." Thanks for sharing, Ray. Jeesh. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to chemo.
I discussed the particulars of treatment with my oncologist, and was met with a confusing mix of chemical names and statistics. He carefully outlined various combinations of drugs I might receive (later known as “the cocktail"), the exact mix to be determined once all the pathology was in. Some drugs would alter the structure of the cancer cells’ DNA; some would prevent them from dividing; some wouldn’t prevent but would disrupt their dividing; some would interfere with their metabolism” I was struck by the amount of research that’s gone into this field of treatment, and mentally thanked all the scientists and white mice out there who’d been working so diligently on my behalf. The doctor quoted statistics about the effect of chemo on cancer: bottom line, for me, was a reduction in recurrence rate of 8 percent, from 24 percent to 16 percent.
Going into treatment, I’d vowed not to "wimp out"-not to choose short-term comfort over long-term success. My medical team would present me with a scenario-toughest treatment with the highest success rate, or easier treatment with very slightly less chance of success-and asked for a decision. I always chose the path that would take me farthest away from cancer, no matter how difficult. I was given the opportunity to opt out of chemo; but 8 percent seemed pretty significant. I opted in. And off we went.
Eighteen weeks later, I was done. I’d been through the wringer, no doubt about it. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d imagined, pre-chemo. I went down the hard road, and I’m glad I did. Next time, I’ll outline some of the steps you’ll take as you get ready for chemo.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.