Movies and television tend to depict chemotherapy patients as being horribly sick for months on end. In reality, chemotherapy is different for every person. I was incredibly lucky my experience didn’t fit the stereotype. I’m not saying chemo was easy, and I definitely wouldn’t want to do it again, but for the most part I found it to be manageable. There were a couple of unpleasant days after each treatment, but the further I got from my treatments, the better I felt. While my overall experience was manageable, the actual infusions were a little more challenging.
My first chemotherapy appointment started with an infusion of EMEND, a powerful anti-nausea medication. I knew something was wrong immediately. My chest became heavy, my breathing was labored, and my skin flushed bright red. I was having an allergic reaction, and we hadn’t even gotten to the chemotherapy yet! My chemo nurses at Group Health (now Kaiser Permanente) were calm and quick. They administered rescue medications, and within a few minutes I started to breathe somewhat normally. At that point, I was jokingly tagged as a problem child. I had to sit front and center where they could keep an eye on me for every subsequent infusion. Needless to say, I no longer received EMEND before chemo.
For the first two months of chemotherapy, I received Adriamycin/Cytoxan (A/C) infusions every two weeks. Those drugs were pretty hard on my body. After each infusion, I was nauseous for days and my head swam for a week. My hair fell out and my mouth was constantly dry and sore. That being said, I had enough energy to walk two miles most days and take care of my daughter. I always felt better the second week. I could drive once my head had cleared, and I could get things done before my next treatment. Unfortunately, the nature of chemotherapy is that as soon as you start to feel somewhat normal again, it’s time for another infusion.
After two months of A/C, I had twelve weekly infusions of Taxol. I found out very quickly that I was allergic to Taxol as well. Nevertheless, it was a necessary drug to treat my cancer, so my oncologist chose to continue the infusions with a few precautions to prevent allergic reactions. Before each infusion, they pumped me full of enough Benadryl to drop a horse and a dosage of steroids that kept me awake for days. They also kept the infusion at a slow drip, so it wouldn’t overwhelm my body and cause a reaction. Because of that, I spent 4-5 hours receiving each infusion instead of the standard 2-3 hours. Throughout those long infusions, I had my hands and feet stuck in ice to prevent peripheral neuropathy from the Taxol. I also had amazing friends like Vicki, Amy, and my mom by my side the whole time.
A few times, they tried to increase the drip speed, so that my infusion wouldn’t take as long. Whenever they tried, I’d have a reaction. During one such event, we thought I was finally tolerating the increased drip speed and the nurse walked away. Thank goodness for Vicki. The reaction happened suddenly, and I couldn’t make a sound. Vicki called out to the nurse and he was there in an instant with rescue meds. My chemo nurses saved my life many times during the five months I was in their care.
Despite my Taxol allergy, the side effects of those treatments weren’t as severe as the side effects I had experienced with the A/C treatments. I didn’t have any nausea, my hair started to grow back, and my head felt normal after a good night’s sleep. I could drive, run errands, and do all of the things I needed to do for my family. Over time, I became more fatigued and dealt with some neuropathy in my hands and feet, but I still walked every day and took care of my daughter throughout her summer vacation.
Even though chemotherapy infusions weren’t easy on anyone, the chemo room was a pretty positive place. Most of the patients receiving care had stopped stressing over the little things in life. It was a community focused on healing, gratitude, and living our best lives going forward. Our chemo nurses maintained the positive environment with their kindness, support, and senses of humor. The hours I spent in the infusion room gave me an opportunity to get to know and appreciate each one of them, not only professionally, but personally. I was fortunate to have such a remarkable group of people taking care of me.