My First Glimpse
The first time I saw the chemotherapy ward, I had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I was told that I’d be sitting in a curtained-off area on a treatment ward for 4- to 6-hour infusions once a week for 18 weeks and then every 3 weeks for 10 more months. The kindly nurse said I should tour it before going the first day. So she led my husband and me down to the ward.
I still remember my first reaction. Pure, twisted-heaviness-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach panic. Don’t get me wrong. The long ward was full of natural light from large windows running down one wall. A blooming spring garden was maintained outside where birds were hunting for seeds at feeders. Individual patient cubicles were set up, about 10 running down each side of the room. Some areas were curtained off but others were open so I could see the patients.
The patients were hooked up with tubes to machines with little lights indicating things like medicine flow. The machines would beep when its bag of chemo agent was running low or out. Nurses walked back and forth in their quiet white shoes while patients sat in sophisticated recliners. Some patients were sleeping, some reading, some watching the TVs placed in each individual cubicle. But what took my breath away was that, and I say this as a brand-new patient with fear shuddering through me, they looked weak, bald, pale, and ... close to dying. And I was going to be one of them.
I cried all the way home.
What I didn’t know at the time was that these patients were warriors. Each and every one of them was fighting the biggest battle of their lives. They might be sleeping or reading or chatting with their companion, but they were fighting with everything they had. And that was beautiful and inspiring. No one was giving up. But that realization didn’t come to me until I too was bald and pale and weak. Despite my outward appearance, I was not dying. I was swinging at the beast.
I tell you this not to insult you if you’re in treatment and not to frighten you if you’ve just been diagnosed. I just want you to know that if seeing your fellow warriors for the first time scares the hell out of you, you’re not alone, and your perspective will change.
My First Day
"Highway to Hell" by AC/DC was playing on the radio as my husband drove me to my first chemo treatment. And then a bald eagle flew across the highway in front of us. We laughed, saying these must be good signs.
We parked. I registered at the front desk and was called into the treatment ward by a friendly nurse. I’d had a Porta-Catheter placed in my chest the week before to allow for easier access to my vein (which I recommend). I would still be poked, but the ease of walking around with my IV pole made my long infusions easier. Did I mention that I was phobic about needles? Ugh.
The nurse was cheerful, but I started to cry anyway, my giddy laughter giving way to tears that this was really happening. She hugged me tight for a minute.
“It will be OK,” she said, but I didn’t believe her.
Even with a port, the needle still pinched. My husband held my hand, and I thought of my “happy place,” which I’d created in my mind ahead of time. I would use that envisioned spot on a grassy bank overlooking a harbor in Maine as my “happy place” all through my treatments. I highly recommend coming up with your own “happy place.” Fill it with details so it’s as real as possible.
IV hooked up, it was time to wait for all the drips to enter my body. That day was so full of emotional extremes. Laughter and love mixed with crying and fear until I was a jumbled mess. I went home exhausted but triumphant. I’d made it through.
My Favorite Day of the Week
Chemo is daunting. But I began to look forward to my treatment Tuesdays because I was the queen for the day! Seriously! Here are my tips for making the day the best it can be.
- Wear comfortable clothing. I wore soft sweatpants and a shirt with a wide, dipping neckline so my porta-cath was easily accessed.
- Try to get there on time but relax if you’re caught in traffic. They won’t turn you away. Chemo is too important. Give them a call to let them know you’re running late.
- The staff was always cheerful, and we made sure they were always happy to see me by bringing treats. My husband would dip strawberries to bring in or I would bake some brownies. Even store-bought cookies can let an overworked nurse know she’s appreciated. This, of course, is totally optional and might be prohibited with COVID.
- Warm blankets are the bomb! Most hospitals and treatment centers have a way of warming up blankets for patients. As soon as I picked an open treatment cubicle, I’d ask the volunteer for warm blankets. She’d wrap them around me like I was enjoying a spa day. She’d also change them out whenever they cooled off.
- Snacks and drinks were brought around, and for the first few treatments they looked good to me. After chemo did a number on my mouth, I didn’t partake. But I brought my own. Things that didn’t hurt my mouth, like cool watermelon.
- Visiting with my treatment companion was a great way to catch up. I asked various friends to take me from week to week, and the 3- to 6-hour sessions really gave us a chance to talk. I told them that their jobs that day were to drive, hold my hand when I got my IV hooked up, and to not let me walk into walls on the way out (since the drugs made me loopy). Due to COVID, a treatment buddy may or may not be allowed. Please check with your ward before you go. You don’t want any unhappy surprises on treatment day.
- Do what you want sitting down. You can sleep or chat or watch TV or work. You are the boss of your time. Take advantage of it. Read those books you haven’t had time for or flip through magazines. I knitted fuzzy hats for chemo patients and then walked along the ward offering them to people.
- If you feel strange, let the nurse know. Sometimes the body can react to the medicine going into you. Oncology nurses have seen all sorts of things and know what to do. No one will make you feel like you’re bothering them. This is serious stuff, and you are a priority.
- Schedule mini-appointments for when you’re in the chair. I had a dietitian from the hospital visit me during my treatments so we could talk about what I could or should eat. I also met with my oncology nurse. If there’s someone at the hospital or nearby who could come over, this would be a good time for an appointment.
- When you leave chemo, you might be tired or wound up on meds. Either way, plan to be unproductive the rest of the day. I would farm out my three kids and plan to nap on my back porch while listening to birds outside. As a busy mom, this was like a vacation. No making dinner. No hopping up to get juice boxes. “Mommy had chemo today,” was a very real, guilt-free, get-out-of-work card. Make sure to use it. After all, you’re fighting a war. You deserve time to do it.
Every treatment ward, hospital, and oncology staff will be different. But the common factor is that everyone wants you to succeed and win your battle. And I promise you, the nurses, doctors, and volunteers see you as a warrior, pushing forward and swinging your sword, even if you’re eyes are closed while you take a nap.
Photo Credit: wera Rodsawang / Moment via Getty Images
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