How to Chemo
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
Well this is shit isn't it - You've found out you need chemo and want to know what the hell to expect. I'm going to do my best to give you the info I wish I'd had before I started.
I'll be honest with you, it isn't the most fun I've ever had - I'd give it 1/4 out of 5 stars.
And that 1/4 star is for the chocolate Bavarian that was provided by hospital catering.
I hope never to do it again, but it IS doable & you will get through it.
Following my hysterectomy for Ovarian cancer I was told that the in surgery biopsies were all clear and I could go on my merry way and enjoy life sans lady bits (ovaries, cervix & uterus removed). However, 3 weeks later I got the call I never expected to receive.
The full biopsies showed cancerous cells! Faark!
My body had done something very unusual and my benign (but borderline) ovarian tumours had sent out some cancerous cells which were found in my omentum... so I needed chemo.
My oncologist had only treated this twice before, and I've been told in the labs they argue over working on these samples as they are so usual. Yay me and my unusual ovaries!
My first day at chemo was 19th Jan 2022.. that is a date I'll never forget.
Walking in with my Mum I had no idea what to expect, how I would feel after or even how I felt right then.
Between the time I was told I needed chemo and my appointment, I joined groups and read up on other people's experience.
I had learnt about and opted to cold cap with the hope of keeping my hair. I walked into that ward full of scary stories and strength gathered from other women, a giant frozen cap on my head and an esky containing snacks and 4 additional frozen caps.
Chemo is essentially a controlled poison pumped into your body to eradicate cancer cells.
It's also a life saving medicine.
But... most medicines don’t have the potential to turn you as bald as a baby's bum, give you mouth sores, make your fingers & toes numb, weaken your nails, change your eyesight, assist UTIs get a hold in your bladder, mess up your bowels and make you toxic to other humans.
Getting your head around the fact that to save your life, doctors are going to pump you full of chemicals so poisonous that the nurses have special protection is wild.
My treatment was at Nambour Hospital on the Sunshine Coast and the staff there were welcoming, reassuring and all round wonderful on my first day. I was taken into a private room as I had a support person with me and we were mid covid spike. As other patients on the ward are immune suppressed they reduced the risk by restricting visitors except for the first session.
Mum and I made ourselves comfortable and got all my chemo snacks & cold capping paraphernalia organised.
A lovely Kiwi nurse came in and explained the procedure to us and the drugs they would be using. As well as the chemo cocktail (mine was Carboplatin & Paclitaxel) steroids, anti-nausea medication and antihistamines may form part of your treatment. I had a HUGE fear of needles (chemo has cured me of that now) so I was offered something to help with my anxiety as well as numbing cream for the IV site.
Due to my fear of needles I was more anxious about the needle than the actual chemo drugs so I was incredibly grateful for the numbing cream and the expertise of the nurse inserting it.
I had been offered a portacath but had declined it as I didn't want any other procedures.
Don't make this mistake! I ended up having to have it after about 3 sessions due to collapsed veins and it delayed my finish date by a couple of weeks.
Get the port before your first session if possible, it makes accessing your veins so much easier and the operation to insert it was simple.
During the pre-meds and vitals checks you will be asked your name a number of times to ensure they are giving the correct drugs to the correct person. You will have your weight, temperature, blood pressure and pulse checked. This is to ensure you are well enough to have treatment and that the chemo dosage is correct based on your weight.
The nurse gave me the steroids and antihistamine through the IV and then a second nurse came in to check my name again and to cross check the chemo prescription. When everyone was happy the drugs were hooked up to the infusion pump and we were ready to get cracking.
The nurse asked me if I was ready and when I confirmed I was she set the infusion going. They will monitor you at this point to ensure you don't have a reaction.
I don't know what I was expecting to feel but it wasn't... nothing.
Not a thing!
I sat there with highly poisonous drugs cursing directly into my veins, I had been freaking out about this moment for about 8 weeks and I felt nothing!
I have been asked by friends if chemo hurts. I know some people who have had a reaction and that sounds awful, but I didn't feel any different at all.
Chemo is accumulative so you may be like me and not have side effects for the first few sessions or you could react like some of my chemo buddies and feel awful straight away.
Mum was a fantastic support person, she listened and helped me with my cold caps, cracked jokes and remained calm (externally at least). The session went fairly quickly and we were on our way home - me with the cooling cap still on my head.
My family were all staying at the time and when we got home my partner, siblings & dad were all anxiously waiting for my return to see how I was coping.
How I was coping was fantastically!
I was relieved the first session was over and the steroid high is real!
I felt like I could take on anything.... and I tried to do just that. I was running around the house like a crazy person wanting to do all the things, I was just so happy to not feel horrendous.
That was day one and I certainly didn't feel that great for the rest of the week. I was on a weekly dose and the next few months went something like this:
Wednesday - Infusion day. Leave hospital feeling great so use this time to enjoy some time exploring the local area with my parents or partner.
Thursday - Haven't slept well due to the steroids but still feeling good. Hungry, hungry and a bit hungry (also due to the steroids).
Friday - Again I haven't slept well due to the steroids but still have energy & hunger from them. Occasionally have an upset stomach but nothing unmanageable. Still starving so can often be found in the kitchen eating anything I can get my hands on.
Saturday - The steroids have definitely worn off now (they have a half-life of up to 72 hours) and I crash around lunch time. I am exhausted and feel nausea coming in waves. I took the anti-nausea tables a little too late the first time but soon learned to take them as soon as I felt a tiny bit nausea. Don't try to fight through it!
Sunday - Exhausted and grumpy, some residual nausea. Note: I didn't realise I was grumpy but I was kindly advised by my boyfriend of this side effect.
Monday - The tiredness & nausea has worn off but I'm still not feeling 100%
Tuesday - Feeling good and enjoying the day as much as I can. Have a mini tantrum at bedtime at having to start the cycle all over again tomorrow.
I had a 'chemo bag' packed that I could just grab and go on infusion day. You may want to do the same and this list might help you decide what to take with you.
You'll overpack the first time but will soon realise what you need to get you through the day.
Take a phone or tablet, headphones and a long charger cable. The infusions can take a while. Mine were 1 hour for the first drug, 20 minute flush (saline), then 30 minutes for the second drug. You'll want something to keep you entertained during this time. Consider downloading some shows to watch as the internet can be patchy.
If you don't want to rely on your phone, take something else to keep you entertained. I saw others with books, knitting, journals, colouring books or cross stitch to keep them occupied.
Wear 'chemo friendly' clothes. I once wore a jumpsuit to chemo. TERRIBLE idea, when you have an IV in your hand it is very difficult to get the arms down to be able to wee. You don't want to be like me - in the toilet panicking you are going to either wet yourself or rip out your IV because you didn't think your outfit through.
Comfy clothes that allow easy access to your arms (if you are having IV for infusion) or neck if you have a port (V neck tops were my choice for this). You can buy a top with port access if you are concerned.
Take warm clothes as it can get cold on the wards. They do usually have warm blankets but I found wearing layers helpful as I tend to get really cold. A light but warm wrap can be easier than a cardigan if your temperature fluctuates a lot.
Depending on the timing of your infusion you may want to take food or snacks. The hospital provided lunch but after a while I got bored of their food so I would bring my own lunch.
Lollies or mints. I didn't have this issue but a lot of people report an unpleasant taste in their mouth during or after chemo. I had fisherman's friends or Werther's Original recommended to me.
Some women have reported sparkling mineral water can help with any nausea during treatment.
Although the hospital provided water I also took my own drink bottles. Drinking a good amount of water before chemo can help with accessing veins (if you don't have a port) and drinking during and after can help flush the drugs through your system.
Other bits and bobs
Some people have suggested a neck pillow to keep them comfortable. You will usually be in a large 'chemo chair'. I found them comfortable but a neck pillow will help if you don't.
If you are sensitive to bright lights a baseball cap or even an eye mask can help with this.
Lip Balm can be good to have on hand if you tend to have dry lips as you'll be sitting in the aircon for a while.
If you are cold capping, take extra warm clothing. I had my own extra blanket, thick socks and even a pre-filled hot water bottle when the weather was colder (just be aware some hospitals won't want you to use a hot water bottle due to the risk of scolding).
Bring a little joy to your life
Chemo and cancer are shit & we deserve all the treats!
There is no way around this fact so treat yourself to something nice - you could also send this link to someone who might want a nudge to get you a gift you deserve.
Cancer and chemo are stressful so treat yourself to a relaxation gift set to help calm your mind between treatments.
Cancer Ladies Running Club Book
A heart-warming, heartbreaking and inspiring book to keep you entertained during your chemo sessions.
I was very lucky and only got a very small amount of neuropathy in my feet but I do feel the cold more now. During chemo I swapped my normal thongs around the house for Uggs to avoid the cold in my toes. It really does make a world of difference.
Cancer Council Australia
CCA an organisation to support all Australians affected by cancer through support, research and prevention programs.
Ovarian Cancer Australia
OCA is an independent national not-for-profit organisation, supporting women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Our focus is to provide care and support for those affected by ovarian cancer; and represent them by leading change. Our vision is to save lives and ensure no woman with ovarian cancer walks alone.
Breast Cancer Network Australia
BCNA Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) is Australia’s leading breast cancer consumer organisation. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that all Australians who are affected by breast cancer receive the very best care, treatment and support.
Bowel Cancer Australia
BCA Peer-to-Peer Support Network connects patient’s and loved ones on a one-to-one buddy basis that enables members to give and receive advice about their bowel cancer experience in an informal and mutually beneficial way.
LF is a support service for patients and supporters dealing with blood cancers.
*FU Cancer is supported by its audience. If you choose to purchase through the links on our site we may receive an affiliate commission. This goes towards paying our expenses plus a percentage of our monthly profit goes towards directly helping people with cancer. If you know someone who could do with a boost during their cancer treatment please let us know here.
FU Cancer is supported by its audience. If you choose to purchase through the links on our site we may receive an affiliate commission. This goes towards paying our expenses plus a percentage of our monthly profit goes towards directly helping people with cancer. If you know someone who could do with a boost during their cancer treatment please let us know here.