20 Ways to Thrive During Chemo

By Kathleen Engel
Reviewed by Marc Garnick, MD; Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS; Theodore Tsangaris, MD

We turned to folks who have gone through chemo or are going through treatment right now for their best tips and tools—chances are, they can also help you de-stress, stay upbeat and just plain feel your best while chemo goes to work ridding your body of cancer.

1. Create a calming ritual.
“At home, I listen to a tape that guides me with deep breathing and relaxing. I take a deep breath in and say to myself, I am, then breathe out and say, Relaxing. Then another deep breath in, I am. Then breathe out and say, Letting go,” says Zeva.

2. Think positive thoughts.
Says Zeva, “There are four lines my son wrote for me, inspired by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, to repeat over and over: ‘I will be healthy. I will heal. I will survive. I will thrive.’ I say them when I’m walking or anytime.”

3. Sneak in some Zzzs. 
“Chemo was on Friday, then Friday and Saturday and even Sunday I felt pretty good,” says Terri. “But by Monday, I was dead-tired. I’d go to work, but at 2 PM I’d go to my car and take a nap!

4. Get a handle on hair loss. 
“I bought two wigs, one short and one long,” says Rebecca. “Then I braided my real hair, cut it off and donated it to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for children with cancer. These choices comforted me.”

5. Outsmart night sweats.
“I wear a cotton T-shirt to bed and keep a couple more nearby,” says Zeva. “So when I wake up drenched during the night, I can easily change. And I tuck a soft washcloth under my shirt; it absorbs the moisture so my shirt doesn’t get soaked.”

6. Keep your routine—as much as possible.
“I still clean the house,” says Zeva. “And I love to cook—it’s like therapy. I get out when I have the energy—to the supermarket and to meetings at the senior citizen center. It’s good to keep busy, but you have to pace yourself.

7. Go wireless.
“Most chemo centers have free Internet access (you may have to ask for the code), so it’s great to bring your laptop, if that relaxes you,” says Deb. “They usually have TVs and DVD players, too, so you can bring the movies you love to watch.”

8. Pick your perfect distraction.
“I have an IV in my hand during chemo, so I can’t knit as I’d hoped,” says Zeva. “Instead I read, do crossword puzzles, browse my new iPad and listen to tapes of soothing music.”

9. Avoid infection.
“The seventh through the tenth days after my infusion is when my immune system is at its lowest, so I have to be careful about germs,” says Zeva. “I keep hand sanitizer in my pocketbook, wash my hands often and stay away from people with colds. I also use the sanitizer gel to wipe down the shopping carts in the supermarket.”

10. Avoid “what-if?” anxiety.
“You might not get the same side effects after each session, so don’t waste time dreading something that may never happen,” says Terri.

11. Write it down.
“Take a journal or a day calendar to each treatment/checkup/visit. Write what you feel, when you feel it, what meds do what and what day procedures are done,” says Deb. “This keeps you focused on you and your health, reminds you to go to appointments and treatments, and down the road it will help you understand the things you went through.”

12. Take backup.
“The first time you go to chemo, it can help to bring your significant other or a very good friend,” says Deb. “In addition to offering comfort, your companion can act as your second set of ears, and if you would like antianxiety meds, he can drive you home.”

13. Keep your head cozy.
“When you lose your hair, your head gets cold more easily,” says Zeva. “On cool nights, I wear a knit hat or a scarf to bed. I even bought some funny hats in the children’s department—one has eyes and ears on it—but they’re soft and they keep my head warm.”

14. Lean on your healthcare provider.
“I call my doctor’s office and talk to the nurses whenever I have a question,” says Zeva. “I was reading outside and my daughter asked, ‘Should you be in the sun during chemo?’ I called and they said it was okay if I wear a hat and use sunscreen.”

15. Tote a “goodie bag.”
“Keep hard candy, like lemon drops or Jolly Ranchers, and water with you at all times—when your mouth is dry and nothing tastes good, you’ll be glad to have them on hand,” says Deb.

16. Speak up for yourself!
“My oncologist told my husband that it would have been risky to follow my first doctor’s advice, which was to wait and see. Which is why I cannot stress enough to be your own advocate. It’s your body—no one knows it better than you,” says Deb. “Don’t be meek. Ask questions, demand answers and seek second or third opinions...it saved my life.”

17. Chill your mouth!
Drink something cold during your chemo appointment,” says Deb. “This helps to shrink the blood vessels in the inside of your mouth, which keeps the chemo from burning you there and can prevent painful mouth sores.”

18. Rinse well…and banish mouth sores.
“If you develop mouth sores, tell your oncology team. I used something I called my ‘miracle mouthwash,’ which was prescribed for me by my chemo oncologist,” says Deb.

19. Eat what you can, when you can.
“Your taste buds will most likely change. Some foods will have no taste and others become a huge unchewable lump,” says Deb. “Learn to try malts, shakes, ice cream, baked potatoes, scrambled eggs—whatever it takes!”

20. Get all the care you need.
“Don’t be afraid of whatever medications you are told you need post-chemo. I had an injection 24 hours after each chemo session to keep my white blood cells up. It helped prevent any infections, which made it possible for me to stick to my chemo schedule,” says Deb.

Published March 2014

  Thriving During Chemo

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Preparing for the Completion of Chemo
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