Preparing For Chemo - A Guide
Last updated: September 2023
Chemo. It’s a scary word, almost as scary as “cancer,” or “unauthorized charge on your credit card.”
Expecting the worst from chemotherapy
Chemo, though, is a necessary part of blood cancer treatment and after years of Hollywood showing us the worst of the worst in TV and movies, it is difficult not to immediately expect the worst. Well, it’s me to the rescue! I’m here to give you my hard-earned tips in this chemo survival guide.
Chemo comes in many forms and runs the gamut from light, “top off your coffee,” style to hard, get down in the dirt, sleep for days, style. No matter what yours looks like, though, there are certain things that remain constant between all treatments and there are ways to prepare that will lessen the fear, anxiety, and physical discomfort that will, unfortunately, come along with the sessions.
Especially that first time - the dread and anticipation mixed with, paradoxically, a little excitement, will make it that much more difficult to think of all the things you might need, so I’m here to help and make that whole ball of wax just a little bit less… er, waxy? Bally? Big?
Prepping for side effects like mouth sores
First and foremost, just know that there are going to be side effects. There is no avoiding it.
You’d be surprised how many people go into chemo thinking something like “this will be a breeze!” and then get gobsmacked by the worst case of mouth sores the doctors ever saw. I heard. It certainly wasn’t me if that’s what you’re thinking. OK, ok, it was me. I know I had you fooled, just like I fooled myself. And if I had to do it all again knowing what I know now, I’d have the mouthwash and the anti-fungal medicine ready to go on day one.
Either hot or cold
Next, there is the eternal struggle with the weather - and no, I’m not talking about climate change but something much less macro. When you are getting chemo treatment you are always battling one of two temperature states - bone-spearing arctic chill or magma-boiling raging inferno. Too hot or too cold. You can cross “pleasant and just right” off your thermostat, you won’t be seeing it for a while. Because of this you should always dress in layers and have a sweatshirt handy. Even if you are getting chemo at the height of summer in Death Valley, trust me, you may need it.
Effects on appetite, taste, and nausea
Continuing on, we come to the thing that most associate with chemo - food. If you ask people the number one thing they equate with getting cancer treatment, nausea and appetite will invariably be at the top of the list. Well, guess what? It’s… true. It’s all true, I’m sorry. My tastebuds packed up and took a vacation to a nice BnB up in Maine for the duration and my stomach, well, let’s just say he decided that it would be fun to make me think I was on a rollercoaster for six months straight. Yeah, it was like that.
The two things I discovered that helped were: hot sauce and ondansetron. Not taken together, obviously, although I was going through cases of Frank’s hot sauce on a weekly basis, basically putting it on everything just to get a smidge of taste out of what otherwise would have been akin to eating cardboard. Boiled cardboard. With no salt. Also, on the days the nausea hit me badly, I had several types of anti-nausea meds (I made them give me more than one kind just in case), but for me personally, ondansetron seemed to always do the trick.
Hair (and beard) loss
Now, let’s talk about the hair thing. The hair loss you will experience varies widely depending on type and strength of chemo, frequency and length of treatment, and, well, genetics, so it’s impossible to say what kind of loss you’ll experience, if any, so you should be prepared for it all. Here are some tips I figured out. First off, you can make your hair look fuller if you dye it a darker color. For me, the chemo made my hair and beard turn gray but, really, it had a transparent quality to it. Dying it back to dark brown really made it look much fuller and dare I say, almost close to normal.
Now, as I man, I can’t speak much about wigs and the like, but the women I know who went through chemo have all said the same thing to me - they wish they had prepared for wig-wearing and procured something before they lost their hair, rather than waiting until after. Universally, though, men, women or non-binary, preparing yourself with some stylish headwear before chemo starts is not a bad idea at all.
Finally, there is one other thing that you may not have thought of at all - transportation. Even if your chemo infusion center is close to your house, you are still going to require transportation. For me, it was my mom, and thank God for her, because there were a few infusion sessions where I just did not feel up to driving home and she was able to take the reins.
Either way though, whether you have family and friends to help you or not, you are going to need transportation. Of course, no one wants to stress and worry about arranging rides and such while vomiting and trying to keep food down, so it’s wise to figure out your transportation situation before you start treatment.
As you can see, chemo involves a lot, and it isn’t fun. Anything you can do to help mitigate some of the discomfort and stress is going to be a Godsend when you are in the thick of things. Taking some of these things off your plate before hand will not only help you physically, but mentally as well, and as the doctors always say - the more stress you can alleviate the better. I wish I had this guide before I started! Talk soon.
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