How to Get Through Chemo Treatment

By Kathleen Engel
Reviewed by Marc B. Garnick, MD, and Lillie D. Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

Two days after the infusion that began her third round of chemotherapy, Cassie Gilmore turned 30. It was just last May and a school day. When Cassie, a third-grade teacher in Southlake, TX, returned to school after a medical leave of more than three months, she was showered with gifts and cards from 45 excited students. Ordinarily, a “big” birthday might have gotten her down, Cassie reflected. Not this time—and never again. “I celebrate each year!” she says, gleefully.

Only a few months earlier, an astonished Cassie was taken by ambulance to the hospital after she had passed out at school. She’d had chest pains that day, so the first thing emergency room workers did was assess her heart health. No problem there, but X-rays and a CT scan showed a shadow on her lungs—what turned out to be a 5-cm (roughly 2-inch) mass on her upper left lobe. Cassie, 29 at the time and a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer—she learned after the diagnosis that she had a genetic predisposition for the disease.

After three biopsies and a lobectomy, a surgery in which the upper portion of Cassie’s left lung was removed (along with 23 enlarged lymph nodes), the young teacher got amazing news: The cancer had not metastasized (spread), as presumed. She was restaged to Stage 1B (indicating a tumor that remains in the lungs and is greater than 3 cm but no larger than 5 cm). Her oncologist instructed her that chemo would destroy what unseen cancer cells might remain. Cassie got a port implanted in her chest to facilitate infusions and wrote in her blog, I am preparing for potential hair loss. I now own two wigs, and an assortment of sassy scarves and hats. 

It was a good thing she held off on the head shave she’d intended. She never lost her hair. (Not all chemo drugs cause hair loss.) But far better than that, Cassie learned from her post-chemo scan that her lungs were stable and she would need no further treatment for now. “I am tired, but thankful,” she said recently. “[Cancer] is now a part of my life. I keep a port in my chest. That’s my lifeline.”

We asked Cassie to share the insight and tips that helped her get through treatment.

Get social.
Make new friends during cancer treatment? Sounds unlikely, but Cassie recommends reaching out. “I was always trying to meet others,” she says. “And I had cancer pals of all ages. Their stories give you strength.” In fact, one 72-year-old woman she befriended during infusions asked visiting music students to play “You Are My Sunshine” to Cassie. “I’ll never forget that.”

Run with the “good days.”
“I always took one minute at a time. I prayed and meditated. I leaned on those who love me. The days I couldn’t pick myself up, they did.”

Go with your personal style.
Some people want to know every step of treatment, see every scan and blood test. And some don’t. Cassie, for one, says her doctor gives her only the information she needs to hear. “I hear stable. And I appreciate that.”

Tap into your spirituality.
“I was praying the entire time. Prayer also helped me on nights I was awake and thinking.”

Get this from your cancer experience.
“Perspective!” says Cassie, who considers herself a reformed workaholic. “I used to be the first one at work and one of the last to go home. But I’m striving to have more balance in my life—to spend more time with my husband, Todd, and family. And those little hiccups in your day? I let them go now. I’m more appreciative of my time each day.” 

Published March 2014

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