Once the word ‘chemo’ drops, people start talking. Suddenly everyone you know knows someone else who has had chemotherapy. Along with all the tips and expressions of sympathy, the ever-present clichés about cancer and chemo are often the things that stay on your mind for longest. “My colleague was throwing up every single day”, “I know someone who couldn’t get out of bed for four months”, “My mother was a completely different person after she had cancer”... But do the clichés apply to everyone? Our designer Wendy compares the three things she hears most often to her own personal experience.
Cliché #1: “You are going to feel so nauseous”
Wendy: “When a character in a film or TV series is diagnosed with cancer, you can be certain that you will be treated to one or more vomiting scenes. Vomiting and chemo seem to be inextricably linked. And yet that isn’t always how it plays out. The type of chemo you get will determine how nauseous you get. What is more, some people are more susceptible to nausea and vomiting than others.
This has a lot to do with the ‘vomiting complex’ located in your brain, which is triggered by toxins in your body (i.e. chemotherapy), provoking nausea and vomiting. This vomiting complex is more easily triggered in some people than others. Fortunately you will be given special medication with most forms of chemotherapy to prevent or lessen nausea and vomiting. Your doctors will do everything they can to counter the side-effects of chemo wherever possible.
After the first three sessions I did feel nauseous, but I never actually had to vomit because I took my anti-emetics. And when my stomach was upset, I tried to rest as much as possible and concentrate on my breathing. After the last three sessions, with a different type of chemo, I didn’t feel nauseous. On the contrary: as soon as they removed the IV from my arm I’d get really hungry, with a particular appetite for fatty foods. It turned into a ritual: straight from the hospital to the chip shop...
But you hear so many different stories. A friend of mine had to be hospitalised for a couple of days after every chemo session because she vomited so much that she was at risk of dehydration. Other people go home after chemo and bake a cake. So no, the cliché doesn’t always apply...”
Cliché #2: “You won’t have the energy to do anything”
Wendy: “Here again, it depends on the type of chemo, the individual and how they feel from day to day. Some people need to stay in bed for weeks, but increasingly often you hear that the treatments are so finely tuned that the side-effects are less harsh than they were ten years ago. That means you will feel less tired and recover faster. I know women who continue to go on bike rides, attend dance classes and meet up with friends on good days. And there are even exception cases where people go into work every day as usual.
My golden tip? Make sure that you get enough rest. Even on days when you feel like superwoman (or superman). Obviously, I would take full advantage of a good day. I’d go shopping or take the train to the seaside for a nice walk. I wanted to spend as much time outdoors as I could. And of course I didn’t have as many good, energetic days after my sixth chemo session as I had done after one or two. But I soon learned to respect my limits and to stop when I needed to. The trick is not to keep going until you hit your limit, but a bit before that, so you build up a reserve.
I used to tell myself, “Every minute that I rest now means that I will recover two minutes faster after chemo”. Perhaps I was being naive, but rationing my energy like that did work for me. I did almost all of my shopping myself, cooked, continued to go out and catch up with friends. Sometimes I managed, sometimes I didn’t. But never forget: nobody is forcing you to go flat out: you have nothing to prove, not even to yourself.”
Cliché #3: “You’ll never be the same after chemo”
Wendy: “Chemo does affect you. For sure. Your body suffers, during and after your chemotherapy treatment. People often say that chemo will make you age faster, by up to ten years. I wouldn’t take that too literally, but it is true that chemo can be quite a strain on your body.
Cancer also takes a mental toll and that can be hard to shake off. Often you only fully realise what happened to you after all the physical discomfort is far behind you. So how can you pick up where you left off after a difficult course of cancer treatment? This is an issue that a lot of people struggle with. And that is perfectly normal.
So there is some truth to the statement that chemo or cancer will change you. But “change” can also be “change for the better”. At least that’s how I feel about it, and so do many other people who have had cancer in the past. You learn to listen to your body better and take more care of it. How many people make more of an effort to exercise after cancer, take up yoga or start going swimming? Or start eating more healthily because it makes them feel more energetic? I go to yoga two or three times a week and try to walk for an hour every day. On busy days, I only manage a 15 minute walk, but every little helps. Not a day goes by without fruit and veg and a good night’s sleep. I only drink alcohol very rarely: it’s not that difficult to get used to once you know why you’re doing it.
And now I dare to listen much more closely to what I want. Doing something I don’t want to do? It was never my greatest strength, but now I make much better choices. I don’t get as easily upset over pointless things. When I can’t control things, I let them go. And above all: always do what you like doing. Because it will energise you. Without this insight, I would never have started Rosette la Vedette and would have never become an entrepreneur. Cancer was the push I needed. It would have been a pity not to do anything with that insight.”
Two very important tips when you're about to start chemotherapy treatment
1/ Don’t believe everything you read on online forums. Stick to the tips and advice from your doctor and nurse and don’t listen to tall stories and popular myths. Your doctor and your nurse know you and know what you need.
2/ Don’t continuously compare yourself to other cancer patients. It will only make you feel even more uncertain and unhappy. You’ll always find someone who feels better than you do. What matters most is listening to your body and concentrating on what does work, not on what doesn’t. Everyone is different, every treatment is different and every moment is different.