What You Can Expect On Your First Day of Chemotherapy
I remember my first chemotherapy treatment like it was yesterday. I was only 16 years old, and I’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’d had surgery to remove a lump on my neck, and chemo was the next step. Walking into that oncology office for the first time, I remember feeling scared and confused. I didn’t really understand what was happening.
Looking back, I know now that’s what makes the first chemotherapy treatment so frightening—you have no idea what to expect! You’re thinking, “Am I going to lose my hair? Is it going to hurt? Am I going to throw up forever?” Once you’ve been through it, it’s not so bad. But that first time is tough.
Everyone responds differently to different oncology drugs, and no one can expect his or her experience to be exactly like anyone else’s. What I can do, however, is tell you a few things that will most likely happen on your first day. The more you know, the less you have to fear. Fear is a destructive emotion that can hinder your ability to heal, so the more you can reduce your fear and increase your confidence, the better.
Expect a blood test. On chemo day they have to make sure your white blood cell count is high enough to handle the treatment, so roll up your sleeve.
Get ready to wait. After your blood tests are approved, they have to prepare your particular chemo cocktail, and that could take awhile. Take along your iPod, a pillow, a blanket (you know how cold those offices can be), some good books or magazines, and best of all, a good friend to help you get through the waiting.
Food, drink, and clothes. Check with your doctor, but most recommend you eat normally before your treatment. You may or may not experience nausea, so don’t eat anything that could potentially upset your stomach. Take a water bottle with you, and sip regularly all the time you’re there. Dress comfortably, and take extra layers so you can adjust according to the temperature.
Calming techniques. If you’re getting really nervous days or hours before your appointment, take along your favorite calming music, some meditation CDs (I love the ones by Belleruth Naparstek — she has a great one for chemotherapy treatments), or even a notebook/journal so you can write down what you’re feeling. Take anything that will have a calming effect on you, even a stuffed animal!
Next! When it’s time for your treatment, the nurse will typically take you into another room. He or she may show you around, give you some materials to read, and then start your IV. Always feel free to ask questions. Answers will help assuage any fear you may be feeling.
Here comes the treatment. Once your IV is working successfully, they’ll start administering medications through it. Some are harmful to the skin, so if you see the nurse wearing gloves, don’t panic. She’s just protecting her fingers. The treatment can take from 30 minutes to a few hours — ask ahead of time so you can be prepared. Otherwise, just try to sit back and relax. The treatment itself is typically painless. If you feel any discomfort around your IV or port, however, ask the nurse, as, on rare occasions, medications can leak onto the skin.
Hair and fingers. New studies have shown that keeping your scalp and fingers cold during treatment helps protect them from damaging side effects. Use several bags of frozen veggies, or better yet, try the frozen glove or a scalp-cooling device.
That’s it! Once your treatment is over, you’re free to go home, though most physicians prefer you have someone to drive you. Pat yourself on the back. You made it through! Side effects vary from person to person, but do keep a sharp eye on yourself, and contact your doctor or nurse should you experience anything you’re not sure about.
I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. If I made it through, so can you. You can do it! I wish you strength, love, and survival.
Britta Aragon is a cancer survivor and the founder of Cinco Vidas, Inc. She wrote “When Cancer Hits: Your Complete Guide to Taking Care of YOU Through Treatment.”
Photo credit: Nanley (Kate)