Two years ago today: my first chemo. I remember I feeling “first day of school nervous” in the pit of my stomach but making myself eat a good, healthy breakfast. I mean, I was worried I wouldn’t want to eat for weeks… and it is the most important meal of the day, right?
As we arrived at the doctor’s office, Reed said this was the day we had been “training for” through our many meetings, appointments and questions over the weeks prior… maybe that’s why he played the theme song to Rocky as we walked into the treatment room for this (and every) treatment. (Seriously. He even had my mom download it to play if he couldn’t be there).
You would have thought I was moving in. I had bags. Plural. I brought snacks for the nurses (something I learned from my Grandma’s chemo journey: take care of those who take care of you!), supplies to keep me busy (including numerous coloring books), my (now-referred to as) lucky waterbottle, lunch, Flat Jess (a paper version of myself that work friends used as a stand-in at meetings on days I was out) a prayer shawl my awesome work family had made for me, Reed and my Mom. I was so ready.
Going in I made a conscious decision that my treatment time would be 100% focused on making myself better: mind, body and spirit. As a mom of three and business professional I rarely fully dedicated any time to myself, let alone hours at a time. But I decided treatment time would be my time. So I tried to minimize working or talking about work or other stressful topics. Instead I listened to a Deepak Chopra healing meditation and colored, between making super awkward small talk and jokes with the nurses and fellow patients (I’m hilarious when nervous). And I snacked, fairly constantly on healthy snacks – an avid Cheeto fan for like 33 years, I had no idea a bag of roasted, unsalted almonds could taste so good. It might not be an approach for everyone, but it worked for me.
All of this to say: if you’re gearing up for your first chemo – or know someone who is – I know: it’s nerve-wracking. I also know you can do this.
Repeat after me: I can do this.
And to help you totally rock it, here’s a few tips that helped me for that first treatment (or any of them, really!):
- Ask the questions you need to ask to be comfortable. Some people (like Reed) want to know absolutely everything. Some people (like me) are comfortable knowing less and trusting. Whichever you are, make sure you have the answers you need. It’s your treatment, your body, you need to be comfortable.
- Take notes. Write down what the doctors say. Don’t paraphrase. Wherever possible, write down every word. Write down key information (dates of port installation or treatments, kind of port, etc.) You’re going to get a lot of info (with or without questions) and it will be hard to remember and easy to confuse. It helps to have something to go back to after you leave the doctor’s office.
- Dress comfortably. My treatments were multiple hours long. So glad I wore some of my most comfortable clothes, including my first pair of superhero socks.
- Bring snacks. See above. Multiple hours? For a serial snacker that’s hard to fathom. Make sure you ask your doctor for an estimated duration of treatment and plan accordingly. Some centers have cafeterias (mine did not), or you may want to bring lunch or have it delivered (Jimmy Johns can be a savior!) I also found my treatment days (as they were 21 days after my last treatment and because I got steroids) I was hungriest so these were great days to refuel and get some much needed calories.
- Find YOUR activity. Maybe you want to binge-watch Game of Thrones. Or you’ve always wanted to read War and Peace. Or you love playing Cribbage, or coloring and making bad jokes in an attempt to befriend fellow patients while listening to serious meditation tracks (like I did). Whatever you choose, choose it for you. Choose something YOU will enjoy. This is time you’re dedicating to your wellness. I’d argue that applies to more than just your physical health.
I left my first treatment feeling like a rock star. Maybe Reed was right: if this was what we had been training for, it was game on. I ate a massive BBQ Burger. I went for a multiple-mile walk with my mom. I was ready to take on the world.
In the days that followed, I later learned that many of these things were because of the steroids and found myself physically sick and exhausted, so I don’t recommend following my lead there (especially not on the BBQ burger part). Moderation is key (even when taking on the world) – and as I navigated the following treatments I found a good balance in terms of what I could eat, what I could do, how I should rest. And you will too. And I encourage you to be patient with yourself as you do.
Chemo isn’t something you spend any time preparing yourself for. No one teaches you how to do chemo… until you need it. It can be jarring to say the least. But, with some reflection and planning, perhaps you too will find that this time can put many positive changes it put into motion – not just for your physical health but also mentally and emotionally, too.
I wish you a smooth first treatment, strength throughout, and a life that gets #bettereveryday.
Been through chemo? Share your first day tips in the comments below! Preparing for your first chemo? Share your questions – likely one of us has been there and we’d love to help you out!
Also, remember: I am not a medical professional. This blog post is based on what worked well for me, personally. Always consult your doctor about what is best for you!