Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What to Expect When You Are ... Expecting Chemo

In 1974 when I was expecting my first child, I had no idea what to expect.  Honestly, back then we really had no idea how to find out.  Childbirth was something our mother's did not talk about, nor did our doctors.  They'd pat our hands and say something like, oh sweetheart, women have been giving birth since the dawn of time.  It's a natural thing.  My mother even went so far as to give me two books:  one by Dr. Benjamin Spock,  Baby and Child Care, and Better Homes and Gardens Complete Book of Baby and Child Care.  I devoured them and still came back confused about childbirth.  Nowhere was the subject discussed.  Heck, back then, until the child presented him or herself, we had no idea what we were getting, let alone if we would have multiples.  

My mother was a wonderful help about preparing for all things post-pregnancy, though.   How to set up a complete nursery, for instance.  She knew how many cloth diapers I would need (and how they made wonderful dust clothes later), what type of baby detergent was best (Ivory Snow), what type of baby bottles and, oh let's not forget the importance of the stainless steel bottle sterilizer.  She wisely said, "Once that baby is born, you will never sleep soundly again, Megan.  You will walk a million and one miles comforting a colically sick child.  For the rest of your life, you will be 'Mama' to every child you hear cry the name. You will throw out your arm protectively over the chest of any child passenger in your car (mother did this very thing, even to my father).  You can never be sicker than your child (amen to this one). This is the life of a mother."   

I was young. The telephone lines between my house in Waco, Texas and my mother's house in Harrison, Arkansas buzzed non-stop for years.  But advice got me through.  So much advice from my mother, my aunts, my friends and the elderly nursery workers at church. To this day I am so grateful.  I remember all of it.

Isn't it funny how much advice comes by way of  friends, acquaintances, family and people you don't actually know at all?  But very little comes from doctors.  Why is that?  Getting practical advice from a doctor is sketchy, at best.  I remember a story my mother told me once upon a time about her sister, who was pregnant with her first child.  She asked her doctor if her body would return to its normal size after birth.  The doctor said, [loosely quoted] "well you know, the heifer was never the same after she had a calf."  And by the way, this doctor was not a vet, he was her family doctor. 

I've spent a great deal of time asking tons of questions, trying to find out about what is going to happen to me during and after chemotherapy.  Most of the details and answers to my questions have not come from my oncologist or his staff, they've come from close friends and some bloggers that I've found right here on Blogger.   It's not like I haven't asked my oncologist and his staff very direct questions, it's just that I've been sort of redirected like a child who is playing with something she shouldn't.  It's like, let's get the conversation going in another direction and maybe you'll forget you asked this question in the first place.  Today when I asked a nurse if chemo would give me a headache and would the doctor give me something to stop a headache if I got one, she told me that I needed to stop talking to people who have had chemo about chemo; that everyone reacted differently.  I felt like I did when I was pregnant with my first child and no grown ups or doctors would tell me anything about childbirth.  It's like the whole subject is just taboo.  

Well, thank God for friends who are willing to talk and tell about their experiences, good and bad.  I'm grateful.  So so so grateful.  If it weren't for them, I would not know how to prepare.  For those of you who are about to begin chemo, as I am, this is what I've learned,  so pull your ears out and listen up:

Post Chemo Feel-Good Products

Stuff to Drink:  I probably should have set a huge jug of water out for the photo, because everyone says drink lots and lots and lots of water to flush the chemo toxins out of your body. But my daughter, Shaynan, sent me this fabulous caffine-free tea that I absolutely love by Good Earth called Spicy Sweet.  If I don't feel like drinking water, or if I'm just plain ol' cold (because it's really, really cold in Arkansas right now), that tea will be the ticket to ride.  

Mouth Sores:  My friend Margie Keener (a dentist's wife) told me to purchase Biotene toothpaste to relieve oral irritations due to dry mouth.  Her husband, Lynn, told me to swish Listerine in my mouth to prevent mouth sores.  Through a patient, who had undergone chemotherapy and had developed painful mouth sores, Margie learned the lady had found relief by swishing Milk of Magnesia over the sores (then spit it out).  The Keeners also gave me a new toothbrush.  Isn't that just like a dentist?

This has nothing to do with mouth sores or chemo, but it does have to do with scars, and I have a long one that goes from one side of my chest to the other, due to my double mastectomy.  Margie suggested I get Mederma.  Believe me, she knows plenty about scars.  A car wreck several years ago nearly took her life.  She pointed to a nearly dissolved scar, claiming that Mederma was the miracle cure. 

Constipation:  Some of the bloggers have warned me of the danger of constipation.  "Eat plenty of fiber, stock up on prunes, and get some Senokot (a laxative) just in case, oh, and walk.  You'll be tired, but walk as much as you can."  I also learned that fatigue is a constant friend.  One lady said she starting taking One A Day Energy; "I honestly believe they helped a lot," she said.  I took one this morning.  The tablets are bright green.  Well, at least they are a fun color.  

A Weak Immune System:  A bailiff in one of our courthouses told me that he and his wife were taking ProBiotics for immune system health.  Evidently, while on chemo, your immune system is at risk, something about white blood and red blood cells getting low.  According to the box of Probiotic we purchased at Walgreens, it's not only good for your overall immune health, it's also a "digestive regularity support".  Good, Probiotic will do double-duty.  I can add it to my stash of fiber/prune/Senokot.  
In the background is a tower of Clorox wet wipes and a smaller box of individually wrapped wet wipes to carry in my purse. They will be good for keeping my work space clean.

 Hair Loss:  My wig arrived today.  Yes, it fits but it is going to take some getting used to.  In the meantime, I'll just be grateful for the hair I have, every day that I have it.  And like the doctor said, the one thing he probably tells every chemo patient, you might not lose your hair; some people don't.  In the meantime, I've got the wig on it's Styrofoam form with my mother's velveteen 1940's hat resting atop her pretty head. It looks pretty classy.  Maybe I'll just wear it that way.  I wonder if I wore fake eyebrows and eyelashes, would I look like Groucho Marx?

Amusement:  Keep good reading material around, especially something to read while getting chemo treatments.  My daughter Jayme sent me a book on CD, called Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I can't imagine anything more positive.  And I love to knit, so I can knit a new pair of slippers and listen to the audio book at the same time. How great is that? 

Exercise:  That was another piece of advice that several bloggers suggested.  Walk, if only for a few minutes.  Take the steps.  Just move around a bit.  So Dwain and I joined one of those pay-as-you-go gyms.  It's frosty wintertime here in Arkansas, so gym exercising is probably the best idea for us right now.  If I'm too exhausted to do very much, I'll watch while Dwain does the He-Man thing on the weight machines.  If nothing else, it will do us good to just get out of the house.  

Dwain straining against muscle builders

And I guess the MOST important thing is to have a sense of humor.  Dwain's not likely to let me harbor the feel-sorry-for-myself-blues for very long.  

Dwain & Megan making Jack-Frost faces on the ice crystals on the front door this morning

Honestly, I have to say, earlier this week something shifted in my perspective about this whole chemo thing.  I can't put my finger on what it was exactly, but mostly it was just one of those ah ha moments when I realized, 'You Are So Fortunate, Megan'.  And I am.  I really, really am.  It would take another whole blog for me to count just a few of my blessings, but I will say this right off the top of the heap, I am so grateful:

  • My cancer was caught so early.
  • We found a breast surgeon/oncologist who is amazing and saw me the very first day.
  • My double mastectomy was perfect; no infections, no problems, no pain [went home the day after surgery]
  • I have a husband who is my twin spirit, the other half of me.  I am so blessed he is beside me.
  • I am not a young mother with dependent children.  I can not even imagine the horror, and I know it exists.  
  • I am grateful to the breast cancer bloggers who have taken time to write about their journey.  You've helped me (and Dwain) more than you'll ever realize.   
  • For prayers lifted up for me.  
  • A super-understanding and supportive boss.
  • Unbelievable friends.
  • List to be continued....

By the way, no one could have ever prepared me for childbirth by telling me about it.  It's truly something you have to experience and it's not always cookie-cutter the same for everyone.  But I daresay, it's got to be close.  And all those things my mother told me about what it's like after you bring the baby home...  You hear the words, you read the books, you see the pictures.  It's absolute heaven; you always think that your baby will somehow be an angel, your baby won't be one of the nightmare fussy ones.

 When I think about it, after raising three babies (and experiencing others), I've decided it all depends on the attitude and nature of the parents who care for them.  Calm, patient, soft-spoken, non-tense parents, who seem to take everything in stride, appear to have babies and children who follow suit.  Sadly,  as a young mother, I was not wired up to be calm and patient.  I wonder if I would be different now?

Chemotherapy tomorrow at 10 a.m.  I may be low risk as far as breast cancer returning, but the doctor says this chemo thing is a battle to save my life. Who am I to argue?  I will always have plenty of questions because I like to know what's coming next.  Does that make me one of the "fussy ones?"  But I've planned ahead to be that good attitude winner -- a breast cancer survivor.  I'll let you know how it goes.  

Thumbs up!


  1. Double thumbs up from me. Your loving husband, Dwain.

  2. Thumbs up here in Utah! And half way across the world in Afghanistan too. We all love you so much!

  3. With an attitude like are sure to come through this a winner. Good luck Megan...I am thinking about you today and hoping you do well.

  4. Megan
    I hope you are a feeling ok post your first chemo......I am thinking of you and sending all of my wellness vibes over from Australia! You obviously have a big team of friends and family behind you and you will draw so much positivity and strength from this; even on your low days.......just remember that your body will bounce back; no matter how bad it is feeling and this treatment will make you better...... you will appreciate your good days and suffer on your worst, but try to stay positive and enjoy the feeling of being loved to death, pampered and visited by all of the people who love you.......stay strong and positive as this will help you and I wish you luck at the gym! I have bought a few Pilates DVDs to do at home which I have found fabulous for building up strength in my arm/chest area.... it also means you don't have to leave your house!
    All the best and I am thinking of you.