Five years ago this week, I started my medical battle against advanced stage testicular cancer. Chemotherapy was a go, and I found myself in scary, unfamiliar territory. That day, my mom and dad were at the hospital with me while my wife held down the fort at home. We went through chemo education, blood work, tours, and finally, I settled into a chair at the chemo suite to take my poison. It would be the first of 28 total treatments.
Many cancer survivors and patients have found themselves in that familiar uneasy situation. No matter how much you prepare yourself, you find yourself overwhelmed, and facing incomprehensible physical and mental anguish. It seems that no amount of preparation and research can actually prepare you for what lies ahead. Scared and confused, many cancer warriors find themselves later saying that the first week is the absolute hardest.
Over the last five years, I’ve had the chance to speak to many survivors and patients, and act as a patient ambassador and mentor. I’ve learned many things from all of the people I have been in contact with, and it’s always great to be able to share my story, in the hopes that it helps someone else. This has given me time to contemplate the first week of treatment and what goes through the minds of so many.
So as I look back on five years since my first time in the chemo chair, I want to share five tips for surviving the first week of chemotherapy.
Tip #1 : Stay Hydrated
I know they hook you up to a million different saline bags, but that’s just to keep everything flowing good. Depending on what chemotherapy you are taking, some can cause metallic tastes in the mouth, and others can make you feel like you’ve just run a marathon. Besides that, the toxins in the drugs can build up quickly in your system. It’s important to keep drinking water as much as possible. Letting ice melt in your mouth, or chugging those Fiji waters.
Sports drinks like Gatorade, while they may help replace much-needed electrolytes, are not always the best for the chemo patient. They can be high in sugars, and your body’s ability to process it may be altered by your treatment. Drinks that are high in sugar are generally not a good idea with an already queasy stomach. Here is a great information source on dehydration and chemotherapy.
Tip #2 : Ask Questions
Write them down ahead of time, write them down as you think about them, write them on your hands and arms if you have to. Most importantly, just ask them. This is one thing that, if I could do it over (like I would really want to) I would do differently. I didn’t ask enough questions. It wasn’t that I didn’t have plenty of them, I just didn’t ask them.
As a patient, you are your own best advocate. Nobody can know more about how you feel and how the treatment is affecting you. You have to stick up for you. If you don’t understand a procedure, or a blood work report, or something like that, ask questions. Don’t let a nurse or doctor walk away until you understand everything you need to.
Tip #3 : Go For Comfort
My grandmother, Nana B, is a wise lady. After watching my grandfather go through his own battle with cancer, she sent me on to my first week with sweat pants, and comfortable long sleeve shirts that buttoned part way down. Everything was lightweight, and the buttons on the shirt made it easy for them to access my portacath. I quickly learned as treatment went on that the rule of treatment days was comfort.
Take changes of clothes with you. Too hot? Change into something cooler. Too chilly? Change into something warmer. Bring extra pillows and blankets. Hats for your head, comfortable shoes. You’re going through a tough medical procedure. The last thing you need is to be even more uncomfortable than you already are. The more comfy you feel, the better you will feel in general.
Tip #4 : Get Your Entertainment On
Are you a music lover? Sketcher or painter? Are you a writer? Whatever your biggest form of entertainment is, bring it with you. For me, I had a sketchbook, iPod full of music, and my computer. You could guarantee that I wasn’t bored. The days were still long, but I got to kind of control the flow of what I was doing. From playing games, to blogging, to jamming out to Skankin Pickle, I kept my favorite things close.
It’s kind of like the comfort thing. The more familiarity you have around you, the better and more comfortable you are going to feel. Do you like to knit? Knit something during treatment. Play board games? Challenge a nurse to Connect 4. I guarantee it will make your day AND theirs. Life is changing and different when you start treatment, but you don’t have to let it steal all of your fun.
Tip #5 : Keep On Moving
Physically, emotionally, and mentally. Keep on moving. Another thing I think I did wrong. I slept and laid around… A lot. While getting your rest is going to be extremely important, it’s also going to be important to keep moving as much as you can. This keeps your immune system stronger, and can drastically help prevent wasting syndrome. Walk when you can, do some light aerobics, play some pool or hold a dance in your own living room.
Mentally and emotionally, you have to keep moving too. Dwelling too much on the situation and the fears will wear you down faster than the treatment. The mental rock bottom is a hard landing zone. Keep in touch with family and friends. Hold conversations with strangers at the mall. Challenge yourself to learn a new language, or skill, or start doing brain teasers.
That’s what I’ve got for today. My top five tips for surviving the first week of chemotherapy. Are you a cancer survivor? Someone who is going through treatment right now? What are your best tips? Share them in the comments below!