“We’re going to start chemo next Friday.”
Those words still haunt me. I was sick with fear, sitting in a little room at Cedars Sinai with my family and my rock star oncologist. I had just gotten the worst news of my life (more on that here), and now I was told that we’d begin chemo treatments in just 7 days. 7 days?! That wouldn’t be nearly enough time to digest this horrendous news! I wanted at least a few weeks to wallow in self-pity (and stress-eat a hundred boxes of Girl Scout cookies).
But one week from that day, I would begin pumping poison into my body to attack the nasty little tumors that had taken up residence throughout my belly. One week from that day, I’d have to watch my hair fall out, watch my teeth disintegrate, watch my nails fall off, and watch my body slowly deteriorate. Or so I thought.
Everything I knew about chemo I’d learned from movies, the Hallmark Channel, and Sex & The City. I figured that the chemo ward would consist of one big open room, where the patients sit next to each other, crying, vomiting, and meeting eyes with that, “Can you believe this sh**?” expression.
My perception was way off.
I was shaking and terrified going into my first chemo sesh. I had brought 2 sets of comfy clothes, books, an iPad, snacks, lunch, water, my laptop, and a pillow. The nurses were amused by how much I’d overpacked. A couple hours into that initial appointment, I began to relax and saw that chemo wouldn’t be as bad as I had anticipated.
18 sessions later, here’s what I discovered…
1) It’s more uneventful than you think.
You know those days when you stay home from work with the flu? The ones where you make a fresh dent in the couch from binge-watching Netflix? Chemo is kinda like that, except you’re in a soft chair (or bed) and hooked up to a loud beepy machine. It’s sorta relaxing, sorta boring, and very uneventful. My iPad got lots of use as I plowed through Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Silicon Valley, Ray Donovan, then Silicon Valley again.
2) It doesn’t hurt.
In fact, you don’t really feel anything. Except maybe sleepiness. At the beginning of each treatment, you’re given a small cocktail of drugs (usually a steroid, an anti-nausea medication, and something to help you mellow out – for me it was Benadryl or Ativan). But I never experienced any pain or discomfort.
3) Your nurses are heroes.
Not all heroes wear capes, but they do wear scrubs. I quickly became infatuated with the guys and gals that took care of me during those dreary days. We cracked jokes. We laughed. We talked about my cats. They showed me iPhone pics of their dogs. Without their constant cheeriness, my ordeal would have been a whole lot darker.
4) Costumes make it fun.
Well, maybe not fun, but certainly less scary. I mean, can you really be scared of something while you’re wearing a coconut bra? Or rocking a tiara? Or a vampire cape? Other patients would come to my bay and tell me they loved my outfits. Costumes made me smile, and they lightened the mood for everyone.
5) It’s not nearly as depressing as it’s depicted on TV.
Before this whole adventure, I envisioned the chemo ward as a sad space filled with feelings of desperation, hopelessness, and bad snacks. Thankfully, it was the opposite of that. The snacks were good. And the ward was full of kindness, empathy, and positivity. Everyone there is doing everything in their power to help you heal. Oh, and did I mention therapy dogs!?
6) Everyone reacts differently to the side effects.
There are a lot of variables that determine how your body will handle chemo. Your age, your health, your cancer type, your chemo type, and so on. I’d been worried that my nails would fall off, my teeth would fall out, and I’d morph into a frail fragile little mess (note to self: stay away from the blogosphere). But thankfully, other than some nausea, hair loss, and strange pains, nothing too bizarre took place.
7) The worst thing to fear is fear itself.
When I got my diagnosis, I had 3 major fears: shaving my head, having surgery, and enduring my first chemo session. But when it was time to bid adieu to my hair, my stylist blasted some girl power tunes and we made it fun. When it was time for surgery, I rocked a rainbow wig and took some hilarious selfies. And when it was time for my initial chemo appointment, I befriended all the nurses and giggled my way through the day. I realized that all my fears were unfounded and there was really nothing to be afraid of.
8) It affects you mentally.
I was totally prepared for the physical side effects of chemo, but I wasn’t prepared for the mental ones. I woke up one morning and the world seemed bleak and gray and I wondered if I’d ever feel happiness or fulfillment again. All I could focus on was the dullness and negativity soaring through my mind. After many boxes of tissues and phone calls with my mom, the rain clouds disintegrated and my sunny demeanor peeked through once again.
9) It’ll be over before you know it.
Back in April, I thought this would be the longest year of my life. That the days would tick by painfully slowly. And sometimes they did. But soon a week went by, then 2 weeks, then a month, then a few months. I tried to pack in as much fun as I could, like movies, a new pair of shoes, dinners with friends, and afternoon walks. And then BOOM – you’re in the home stretch.
10) When you’re finally finished, it’s the best feeling in the world…and also one of the weirdest.
During treatment, you feel a sense of safety. You have doctors and nurses and hospital staff surrounding you all the time. Then once you complete your final chemo session, you start to wonder, “Now what? Do I just sit back and hope that cancer never comes back?” It’s a strange transition. You go from feeling sheltered to feeling exposed. Some days are riddled with anxiety and some are riddled with Thin Mints cookies. But all of them are days worth living.