Chemotherapy: What I wish I’d known

I recently finished my last chemotherapy treatment at MD Anderson in Sugar
. It was a milestone that, at one point, I honestly thought
I’d never reach.

In November 2016, I was diagnosed with stage II, HER2+ breast cancer. When I found out that I needed
chemotherapy, I did everything I could to prepare myself – or so I thought.

Everybody’s chemotherapy experience is different

As I learned during my chemotherapy treatments, many people may have
similar experiences, but that doesn’t mean it will hold true for you.
I was completely caught off guard by my body’s reaction to the
Herceptin, Perjeta, Taxotere and Carboplatin chemotherapy cocktail I
was prescribed.

Most people told me I could expect side effects like nausea and diarrhea to last a couple of days after each
infusion. But I developed both cholera (a dangerous infectious
bacterial disease of the small intestine) and Clostridium difficile
(or C. diff), another type of bacterial infection. The two caused
unbearable diarrhea and nausea that left me severely dehydrated and
hospitalized for a week.

Even though Perjeta was eventually dropped from my chemotherapy
cocktail, my side effects were still intense. I also suffered from
extreme fatigue, weight loss and neuropathy.

And to make matters worse, my C. diff infection kept redeveloping,
and each time, the diarrhea and nausea returned sooner and with
greater intensity. I was hospitalized four times.

There are ways to alleviate your side effects

After my fourth chemotherapy infusion, I was ready to give up. But
my oncologist, Dr.
Janet Tu
, and a physician assistant at MD
Emergency Center encouraged me to keep fighting.

They called in experts from MD
Supportive Care Center to help manage my side
effects. That team is a godsend. An infectious disease doctor
prescribed me a tincture of opium to ease my nausea and diarrhea, and
a dietitian gave me tips to overcome malnutrition. A psychiatrist stopped by to comfort
me and referred me to a social work counselor who could continue
supporting me.

Dr. Tu also established a new protocol that required me to return
the day after each chemotherapy infusion for a stool test. If my stool
tested positive for the bacteria, I was immediately prescribed
antibiotics to fight it.

With the support of Dr. Tu and the rest of my care team, I made it
through my last two infusions and rang the bell at MD Anderson on June 9 to mark the end of my treatment.

Find tricks to make your life easier

Reaching that finish line took a lot of faith, support and sheer
willpower. Here are a few other things that helped me.

  • Bring sentimental items to chemotherapy: My
    infusions lasted anywhere between 4 and 6 hours. To comfort me, I
    brought along a blanket my mother had made me before she passed
    away. I also brought pictures of my granddaughters to each infusion
    to remind me why I’m fighting cancer.
  • Redefine your idea of meals: For most of my
    treatment, I couldn’t keep much food down. In fact, I couldn’t even
    look at food on the TV screen without feeling nauseated. Dr. Tu and
    my dietitian suggested I buy something light, like applesauce or
    vanilla pudding, and take bites here and there. And because milk was
    one of the few things I didn’t throw up, they also suggested that I
    try drinking meal shakes. Both tricks helped me get to get more of
    the nutrients I desperately needed.
  • Befriend other patients: Your caregivers may be
    doing all they can to help, but sometimes you need to just talk to
    someone else who’s going through the same thing. I found it
    extremely comforting to chat with other patients in the waiting room
    and share our personal experiences. It made me feel less lonely and
    validated my thoughts and feelings.

Don’t give up

I’m so glad I didn’t toss in the towel midway through treatment
because now I am living without any evidence of disease. So if your
chemotherapy experience isn’t smooth sailing, don’t give up. Keep
searching for answers and keep fighting. You’re always one second
closer to reaching the finish line.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by
calling 1-877-632-6789.