For people who’ll be receiving treatment for cancer, one of the first questions is, “What is chemotherapy?”. Frequently shortened to chemo, this form of treatment uses powerful medication to kill cancer cells. It’s typically administered in repeating cycles of 2-6 weeks. You may hear these periods referred to as rounds, as in, “He finished his second round of chemo today.”
How Does Chemotherapy Affect the Body?
Chemo attacks fast-growing cells like cancer cells but, as a result, it also targets certain healthy cells like those in the bone marrow, intestines, hair, and skin. That’s why cancer patients who get chemo have side effects.
How does chemotherapy affect the body specifically? Patients may experience hair loss, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, constipation, loss of appetite, mouth sores, cracked and discolored fingernails and toenails, and skin sensitivity. Thinking and memory problems (sometimes called chemo brain), anxiety and depression are also common during chemo.
Tips for Getting Through Chemo
It’s understandable to have concerns as you get ready to start your treatment. Fortunately, the tips for getting through chemo provided below can help you be prepared. And as many patients will tell you, chemotherapy may be much less stressful than you expected.
Here are 10 tips for coping with chemotherapy:
1. See your dentist first. You won’t be able to get your teeth cleaned while undergoing chemo, and having a professional cleaning can help reduce the mouth sores that are common. You can prevent these lesions by brushing up to five times a day and rinsing your mouth frequently with a mild mouthwash.
2. Plan your diet. Your body will need plenty of energy and the right nutrients as it works to fight your cancer and adjust to the effects of chemo. Your doctor or nutritionist can help you choose the right foods and also give you advice for stimulating your appetite if it starts to decrease.
3. Make an event out of getting some wigs. If you plan to wear wigs as a way of dealing with hair loss during chemo, get them in advance and have some friends along for support and input as you shop for them. Some cancer patients recommend shaving your head before your hair falls out, as that can feel more empowering. You might also ask your doctor about cold-cap treatments. They may help minimize your hair loss.
4. Buy or borrow some books. You’ll have plenty of downtime during chemo, and reading a good book is a great way to take your mind off what you’re going through.
5. Stay hydrated. Even if you don’t necessarily feel thirsty at times, your body needs plenty of water to function properly, so be sure to keep sipping throughout your day.
6. Use the anti-nausea medication provided. If your doctor prescribes anti-sickness medication, be sure to take it as directed.
7. Get ahead of constipation. Chemo can cause you to be uncomfortably stopped up. Talk with your doctor in advance about what they recommend, as some solutions work best if you begin taking them a few nights before you start a round of chemo.
8. Wear comfortable clothes. Very quickly you’ll discover that how you feel during chemo is much more important than how you look. Many people will choose a “chemo outfit” and wear it every time they go in for treatment. That can take the mental stress out of getting ready.
9. Practice stress reduction techniques before and during chemo. Having cancer is stressful. Practices like prayer, meditation, focused breathing, and positive visualization can help you relax, which may also help your body fight the disease.
10. Remind yourself frequently that you’re not alone. Being diagnosed with cancer can feel isolating, so keep in mind that your family and friends are thinking about you and your care team is working both with you and behind the scenes to find the best way to beat your cancer. You might also join a chemo support group.
Find Support & Resources for Cancer Patients
Chemotherapy advice from your care team and family or friends who’ve gone through the treatment can help you be physically and emotionally prepared for the experience. One of the truths you’ll likely hear from them is that you’re stronger than you know. Embracing that idea and heading into chemo confident that you’ll achieve a positive outcome is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
If you or a loved one have cancer, visit the Baptist Health website to discover more cancer patient resources.