Taxol Chemo #10: DONE with Chemo! 10 Tips for Getting Through It

And I'm DONE --with 12 sessions of chemotherapy! 

Since April 2020, I've been through 4 bi-weekly Adriamyacin/Cytoxin and 10 weekly Taxol treatments (we stopped short of the normal prescribed 12 because of some neuropathy that had begun) and hopefully that's the last of any chemo I have to do!

Yesterday marked 6 months since the day I received my diagnosis.  In some ways it feels like the longest 6 months of my life, and in others it's like a really long weekend that is finally coming to an end.

I was excited to show up today for my treatment, and decided to dress the part in my breast cancer t-shirt. I brought all of my nurses a couple dozen Krispy Kreme donuts to celebrate (they were supposed to be the fun new fall flavors, but in true 2020 fashion, they were all out) and it feels fantastic to check this off as complete!

Even though this is far from the end of my overall treatment (I have at least two surgeries, reconstruction and 5-10 years of anti-estrogen hormone treatment left to go), it feels like a personal accomplishment to have made it through what was extremely scary and unknown when I first heard the word "chemotherapy".   I was terrified of what chemo would do to me, how hard it would be, how sick I would feel, and (keeping it real) what I would look like.  

For anyone just starting out on this scary path, I wanted to send out a little bit of encouragement.  These photos were taken 6 months apart, during which time I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer and completed 12 chemotherapy treatments.  

No, it has not always been easy and I did not always feel "cute" or "strong" and there were days that were just plain awful. But after it's all said and done, I'm still ME.  The length of time, the side effects,  and the changes in my appearance that I was so scared of weren't as terrible as I feared they would be.  

And as you can see...while there are definitely some changes (most of which aren't visible) I don't look THAT different than I did when this all began.  I'm still standing, still smiling, just a little taller and more confident than I was then!
 
 
What has been the *most* surprising to me throughout the chemo portion of my treatment is how do-able it is.  I didn't do anything special or magical to get through it, and there's no way to know if my lifestyle had anything to do with how chemo affected me.  However, I like to think a few simple healthy practices were helpful along the way--most of which have nothing to do with cancer or chemo, but definitely helped me handle both.
  1.  Start off in good shape.  Don't wait until you're sick to try and get healthy.  Do it now and you'll be in a better position to handle whatever is thrown at you. I fully believe that already having good exercise and decent eating habits (no one is pretending I was a nutritional role model) gave me a huge boost in being able to handle the drugs and side effects.
  2. Stay well hydrated.  People laugh at the gallon jug of water that I try to finish every day (and most days I do!), but I think that was so helpful in curbing my veracious steriod-induced appetite, flushing the chemo toxins through my body, preventing sore muscles and aching joints, keeping my skin healthy, preventing dry mouth, and handling the constipation from steriods.
  3. Increase protein.  Whether it helped or not, I upped my protein intake over the past 6 months and ate lots of baked chicken tenderloin, hard boiled eggs, and a nearly daily post-workout protein powder shake.  Overall my nails have remained strong and unaffected, my hair started growing back pretty quickly once I was off the Adriamyacin/Cytoxan regimen, and my muscle tone was able to be mostly sustained. 
  4. Take a daily multi-vitamin.  Choose a good one.  Take it daily.  I believe it can fill in the nutritional gaps where your diet is lacking. A probiotic is a good idea too.
  5. Eliminate alcohol and reduce sugar.  I mean, there's already enough poison in your body. Don't make it harder to recover by feeding it more.  I had no problem with the no alcohol portion of this tip, but had trouble in the middle of the taxol treatments with stress-eating way too many sweets.  When I cut back, I could tell a significant difference in how much better my body felt and specifically in a feeling of decreased anxiety.  That's funny since most people drink alcohol and eat sweets when they are anxious. It turns out those things (over time) make me anxious, and reducing or eliminating them helped me stay much calmer and more even-keeled.  Once I realized that drinking alcohol and eating junk food weren't actually solving or relieving my stress (but instead were contributing to it), it made it much easier to resist them--I mean, not always, but more often.
  6. Get plenty of sleep. A regular bedtime and wake-up time really helps my body run well.  I function best on 7-8 hours a night, from 10pm to 6am.  When I don't hit that on average, I notice that I start feeling more sluggish, needing more coffee, craving more sweets, and feeling more cranky and irritable.  Following each chemo treatment, I allowed myself extra rest and naps to recover (and during AC to just get through the nauseasness and awful-feeling days).
  7. Get regular exercise.  I just enjoy exercise, which I know isn't everyone's favorite thing to do.  But for me, being able to exercise 5-6 days a week meant that I felt "ok" and like "me" while I was going through chemo.  The physical benefits (energy, strength, posture, reducing muscle and joint stiffness, and flexibility) were almost second to the mental and emotional need I have to being able to move my body everyday.  Since I had to take several short breaks from my exercise routine to accommodate the effects of AC chemo and to travel for family emergencies, I could tell that not exercising regularly made me feel much worse than when I was exercising daily.
  8. Stay ahead of the side effects.  Take the stool softeners, anti-nausea pills, claritin and use mouthwash pre-emptively!  Your stomach and bowels and joints and mouth will thank you.  Hard candy helps with nauseasness.  Lotion and chap stick are your friends.  
  9. Delegate to others. You can't do all the things you were doing before chemo began. Killing cancer cells isn't a full time job, but it does require a lot of your time and energy. Some things will have to slide, be postponed, or be done by others.  Delegate where you can--and if you're willing to share your experience with others, people will come out of the woodwork begging to help you in any way possible!  It's wonderful...Take the help!
  10. Let go of expectations.  Everyone's body responds differently to chemo.  What I dealt with may be very different than what you have to handle.  But if you go into it with an open mind and no expectations for exactly how it will go, what it will do and how you will respond, you're more likely to be able to roll with and adapt to whatever comes.  It's kind of like the first night on a cruise ship....keep your body loose and move with the ship instead of fighting it and you're less likely to get seasick.  When your body is tired, rest.  When you are hungry, eat.  If you are cranky or emotional, give yourself permission to feel that way.  The good news is, the cancer card works almost everywhere and people will give you a lot of leeway if you aren't able to do and be all the things you are used to being at the capacity you are accustomed to.  Now is the time to give yourself lots of grace and permission to take a break when you need one.
If you'll notice, I didn't mention my hair at all in that list, and it's one of the things I was the most scared about changing!  It absolutely was a big and emotional moment to shave my head, but it turns out (after a week or two to adjust) it was more liberating and freeing than traumatic.  I'll be glad when I have a full head of hair again, but having a bald or buzzed head ended up being a good visual reminder every day that I am going through a battle that requires a shift in my attention and energy, at least for a period of time.  I didn't want to wear all the wigs and scarves I collected ahead of time, because those made me feel more sick, and like I was trying to cover up and hide my battle.  Personally, I have found strength in being open and transparent throughout this process.  I understand that's not for everyone, but it was crucial for me.  (Hats though...those were fun.  I definitely like wearing hats!)
 
Usually a "before & after" is accompanied with a photo showing off a dramatic change, but in this case, I'm thrilled that my before and after are almost indistinguishable.  Throughout it all, I've been able to maintain, and in many ways improve, my physical and mental health and fitness over the past 6 months.  I've learned to practice more balance and to allow myself the grace and permission to ease up on my output when my body said to slow down--whether that was by physically resting my body, taking a few days (or weeks) off of work, saying no to activities or responsibilities I would normally try to tackle, and just accepting my own limitations. What was important to me is that I didn't let that need to slow down lead to a full stop.  Once I had recovered and rejuvenated, I picked back up and tackled the next day, the next challenge, the next workout, or the next tragedy (if you've followed my story, you know what I mean).
 

I hope to take that same attitude into my next challenge -- surgery.  I will most certainly have to slow down even more, modify my daily life and routine in many ways, and be willing to accept some physical limitations, at least for a season.  I feel like going through chemo has prepared me to do that well.

Everyone's journey is different, and not everyone will be as lucky as I have been, but if you are facing the challenge of chemotherapy I am here to tell you that you can do this.  It won't break you.  You will still be YOU.   

 

And PS. According to my mammogram in June, the chemo worked and there was no evidence of cancer shown in the imaging.  Hopefully that has remained true throughout the past few months and all this is just throwing all medical science has at ensuring we get all the microscopic cells both systemically AND surgically.  For now at least,  the long term prognosis looks good!

2 comments so far:

Christy Faulk said:

I recently met your husband and son at work and he told me about what you are going through and about your blog. I am sorry you are having to go through all this but congratulations on being finished with chemo! Your post is amazing and informative. I think you will help many women with your blog. Even women like me who have not had a diagnosis. You are incredibly strong and give others hope.

yasminmen said:

Andrea, you are an inspiration and it's amazing all that you've dealt with so bravely throughout these last months.

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