Chemo is full of unknowns — the experience is different for everyone — so it’s impossible to know exactly how chemo will unfold for you. But that doesn’t mean it won’t help to prepare.
Here are some things that helped me as I went through my own chemo experience:
Pillows, lots of pillows.
Sometimes chemo made me so uncomfortable and achy that regular chairs, couches, and beds seemed like torture devices. Pillows came to the rescue. I felt like The Princess and the Pea!
Chemo can be isolating. I found unbelievable comfort on Facebook — it felt like I had my own cheering section. When I felt nervous about a procedure or test, dozens of childhood friends, classmates, and colleagues would send me messages of encouragement. It helped me weather the endless days at home alone in pajamas. Facebook may not be your thing. If not, try another platform: Start commenting on a website dedicated to your kind of cancer, or try Twitter or Snapchat or Tumblr. Trust me, it will help you feel less alone. And while, yes, social media does have trolls, in my experience it seemed that angry commenters largely leave cancer patients alone.
Netflix. Apple TV. HBO. Acorn. Whatever’s your pleasure, make sure you have access to movies. There were a lot of days when I didn’t make it out of the easy chair. Movies were my saving grace on those days. And as chemo progressed, I became less and less able to focus on reading books or magazines — again, movies came to the rescue.
Enlist a team of friends and family to help you get through it.
My dear friend Sarah came to all my early appointments. She took notes and asked the doctors questions for me. My husband and I were too physically and emotionally exhausted to ask questions effectively, even though we’re both journalists who have made a career out of asking questions.
My sister-in-law brought over her famous enchiladas the night after my first infusion. And many other friends and family brought us food as chemo progressed. For each infusion, another friend came to sit with me and my husband. Others set up a collection and handed us a check to cover take-out meals and housework help.
There are several web-based programs to help organize your helpers. Check out Lotsa Helping Hands or CaringBridge. If you don’t have friends or family nearby, ask your medical team for referrals to local nonprofits and support groups. Don’t go it alone. There’s help out there. Ask for it.
Create a big cancer binder.
Put everything in it: Diagnostic test results, imaging, handouts from your oncologist, important phone numbers, and calendars for treatment and for helpers. Bring it to each appointment. Even in these days of electronic records, it can be helpful to have everything in one place, on paper. Or if you’re tech-minded, scan everything and store it on a tablet. Either way, bring that binder or tablet to all your appointments. No matter how great your medical team, sometimes the right hand does not know what the left is doing.
Put your finances and your work life in order as much as you can.
You will probably have to take some time off, and perhaps lots of time. Be honest with yourself, and with your work supervisors. Remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act covers cancer. You do not have to disclose your cancer status if you don’t wish to do so. But if you think it may affect your job performance, or if you anticipate taking a lot of time off, it might be a good idea.
I didn’t work through chemo. I don’t think there was any way I could have — chemo took my brain and replaced it with fuzz. In my case, since I’ve been a freelancer for nearly 25 years, there was no “boss” that I need to tell. But it definitely strained my family’s pocketbook.
Cancer can wreak havoc on patients’ finances. But there are programs out there to help. The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition can refer you to programs near you. Most big hospitals have financial navigators to help you through the complex world of cancer treatment. If you think cancer may affect you financially, get help as soon as you can, not when you’re facing an overwhelming bill.
Figure out what makes you happy. Set aside time for that.
Going through chemo is intense. You feel sad, scared, expectant, sick, overwhelmed, often all at once.
You cannot focus on cancer 24/7 or you will go bonkers. Try to do something each day that you really enjoy. I like being outside, and I’ve always been a dog person. So I took my dog hiking each day. Of course, the hikes got shorter and shorter as chemo progressed, but they still brought me joy.
So figure out what brings you happiness, and do it as much as you are able. Even in the worst times, you can find good things — even if they’re small.