Chemotherapy; my top lifestyle and self care tips for staying physically strong and nurturing your mental well being throughout.
So we all know that chemotherapy isn’t really a spa treatment. But with breast cancer being the most common cancer among women, around 1 in 12 of us will experience it at some point in our lives.
Chemotherapy is a set of miraculous drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people. Chemotherapy kills cancer, and so it becomes our ally when we are facing the war we hoped we’d never have to. Unfortunately, as it can’t single out the cancer cells, our own healthy cells get caught in the crossfire. Scientists are working on more targeted chemotherapy drugs, but for now those of us who undergo chemotherapy must endure the sometimes brutal side effects that come with it.
I had 6 months of chemotherapy for triple negative breast cancer. It was grueling, but as time went on I learned many tips and tricks to help myself through it. There are things you can do to be proactive, gain back some of the control you have lost, and feel great. Although it was a tough time, these things helped me stay happy and strong, and now I want to share it with those of you facing your own chemotherapy journey.
Take it one treatment at a time.
If you think too much about what lies ahead at the beginning of your cancer journey, it can easily swamp you. When you first hear you have 6 months (or however long you are prescribed) of chemotherapy ahead of you, it seems like an impossibly daunting undertaking. Especially as you are likely still reeling from diagnosis.
Breaking it down into more manageable steps will allow you to cope with things much better. So, at the start of your chemotherapy regimen, focus on getting through one infusion at a time. Try to only think about the next infusion once you are feeling better from the last. Forget about the rest for now, and when you start to panic about what the future holds, promise yourself that you will deal with that when you need to.
In the same vain, only tackle one step of your treatment plan at a time. I did chemotherapy first, and didn’t even begin to prepare and research for surgery until I was done with it. Only when I was healing from surgery, did I start to think about radiotherapy.
Compartmentalizing everything makes it a lot less overwhelming and stressful. Admittedly, it’s not the easiest skill to master if you are an overthinker (as I am). But keep practising and before you know it you will find yourself doing it naturally. You might also find yoga and meditation helpful in quieting your mind.
Prepare a few things ahead of each infusion.
This is something proactive you can do that will make you feel like an active participant in your treatment. Before each infusion, prepare a few small things that will help you afterwards.
The first lot of chemotherapy I had, Adriamycin Cyclophosphamide, also known as “the red devil”, was particularly brutal. After the first one hit me like a train, I knew that I would be feeling rough afterwards. So, before each of my treatments, I would set up the bed in the spare room (my baby was still sleeping in our bedroom at the time) with fresh sheets, books, my refillable water bottle, a bucket (just in case) and some ear plugs. It became my chemo den. Somewhere I could crawl into as soon as I got home after the infusion, with everything I needed within arms reach, and pass out undisturbed for as long as I needed.
Another great way to prepare is to bulk cook and freeze some healthy meals. You might be dubious about eating in the couple of days following chemo, and the last thing you will want to do is cook. But it is SO important to nourish your body whenever you can. For me little and often worked best.
Vegetable soups, fish pie and hidden veg bolognaise were some of my favourite choices. You need things that are full of goodness, tender on sore mouths, easy on a sensitive stomach and delicious enough to be tempting.
Drink Fresh lemon water.
For the duration of my chemotherapy treatment I constantly drank cold water with fresh lemon juice squeezed into it. It is something that a friend who had previously gone through chemo herself recommended to me. Now, I swear by it.
Not only is lemon water refreshing and hydrating, it is also detoxifying on the liver and aids digestion. It’s the perfect way to counteract the poisonous effects of chemotherapy and flush out all those toxins.
Tip: Use cold or even iced water, as it will also help reduce mouth sores.
It is scientifically proven that gentle exercise during chemo helps with side effects, and actually increases its efficacy. So as much as you might not feel like moving from the couch, it is imperative that you do so every day.
I’m not talking extreme exercise here, just whatever you can manage. For me that was going for a walk pushing my baby in the buggy. Some days I could only make it around the block before I had to turn back. But even a small walk and some fresh air always made me feel better.
That said, listen to your body and sleep when you need to.
Cooling eye masks.
My Mum sent me some of these cooling eye masks in the post when I was first diagnosed, and I ended up using them all the time. You leave them in the fridge and they’re ready to grab whenever you need them.
Chemotherapy and the supportive dose of steroids they administer with it, can cause unwelcome headaches and intense hot flushes. A cooling eye mask is blissfully soothing. I’d always take one from the fridge after each chemo session before going to lie down.
Plus they make you look like a superhero, which really you are.
Treat yourself to some pretty head scarves or wigs.
This one won’t apply to you if you are one of those astoundingly cool and confident women who happily rock the bald head. I wish I could have been like that, alas I am just not. I’d honestly rather have walked down the street naked than without a head covering. Which is obviously completely ridiculous.
So I decided that, if I was going to be bald, I was at least going to do it in style. It’s not just about the vanity. It’s about processing that you’re going to lose your hair, making yourself feel good, finding your new identity and not feeling like a sick patient.
That can of course mean different things to everyone. I found that wigs were not for me personally. It was an intensely hot summer when I was having chemotherapy. I was having debilitating hot flashes, and the last thing I wanted was to put a heavy, scratchy wig on my head. There are some excellent ones available if you are willing to spend the money though. I know one woman who was able to successfully hide her hair loss from all but her closest family thanks to investing in some great wigs.
I instead opted for soft, lightweight hats and headscarves that didn’t make me compromise my comfort. I tried many, and these are the ones that I loved and wore the most;
- This beautiful and light turban, available in a range of gorgeous designs.
- This super soft slouchy hat, probably the one I wore most.
- This barely there bamboo sleep cap, extra soft and light for sleeping in.
- This ridiculously comfortable cotton head scarf hat for cooler days.
Invest in some chemo friendly skin care.
Taking care of yourself on the outside will help you feel better and more human on the inside.
Chemotherapy can have many unpleasant effects on your skin, depending on the type you are having and how you react to it. These can include dryness, redness and rashes. Skin sensitivity is common to all chemotherapies, and so it is best to use moisturising, gentle and unscented products throughout your treatment.
Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money. I used the nourishing shower cream, moisturiser and daily body lotion from the Aveeno range. Their products are made with ingredients derived from nature and are perfect for sensitive skin. My skin remained soft, polished and glowing despite what I was going through.
Another option is ‘function of beauty’. As outlined in my “function of beauty” product review, their hair products are a gorgeously scented, chemical free and completely personalised choice when your hair starts growing back. And they now have a recently released skin care range that is definitely worth a try.
Stock up on makeup basics.
During chemotherapy, you don’t just lose the hair on your head, you also lose your eyebrows and eyelashes. For many women this is particularly difficult. It’s when they really look in the mirror and see a cancer patient staring back at them. It’s amazing how much eyebrows in particular shape and frame your face.
Chemo can also cause a pale complexion and dark circles under your eyes. Thankfully, with the right makeup, these things are easy to remedy. I am not a fan of heavy makeup and that didn’t change during chemo. In fact I wanted a lightweight, fresh and natural look.
For a makeup heathen like me the absolute essentials during chemo were;
- An eyebrow pencil/eyebrow kit.
- A creamy blusher for a healthy glow.
- A natural shade of eyeliner to give your eyes some definition.
- A neutral eyeshadow palette.
- A brightening undereye concealer.
As with your skincare, you will want gentle, hypoallergenic makeup that won’t irritate your skin. There are many endless options as far as makeup brands go. Do your research and find products that suit your skin type and age.
This came as a nasty surprise to me, but the combined effects of chemotherapy and ovarian suppressors (if you are premenopausal) can do an absolute number on the inner workings of your vagina. Just as chemo causes sores on the delicate skin of your mouth, inner cheeks and gums, it can cause the fragile skin of the vaginal wall to atrophy. This makes sex excruciating and nearly impossible. It’s unfortunately a very common side effect, and sadly one of the least discussed.
The first thing to say is, if you are experiencing this, don’t put pressure on yourself to have sex. It will only lead to more pain and a negative association with sex going forwards. You’re going through enough right now, and a loving partner will be understanding and patient.
If you do feel like having sex, afterall it can be a potent stress reliever, you will need to take it slowly and use a good, silicone based lubricant. I highly recommend this one and for a more affordable option this one.
Take a trip!
It might feel reassuring to stay close to home for the duration of your treatment. But I can’t recommend highly enough the benefits of taking a little holiday or trip.
You must of course only do this with the support and advice of your medical team. Mine could not have been more encouraging when I approached them asking if it was OK for me to go on holiday. Doctors know that getting through chemotherapy is arduous, and that your mental state contributes as much to your healing as the physical side of it.
I went on 2 holidays whilst I was having chemotherapy, both abroad. I could never go for more than a week so as to be back in time for my next infusion, but both weeks away provided relief, distraction and fun that I desperately needed. It reminded me that life is beautiful and worth fighting for. I came back feeling relaxed and ready to face the next session.
Worth noting: Chemotherapy causes photosensitivity i.e. it makes your skin and eyes incredibly sensitive to the sun. So, if you are heading somewhere sunny, stock up on sunscreen that is no less than factor 50, sunglasses and hats. It’s also wise to keep the cocktails to a minimum, sorry.
Adopt a positive attitude.
First of all, if anyone who has never experienced chemotherapy themselves tells you to have a positive attitude, feel free to slap them. Or kick them in the shin, maybe a knee between the legs, whatever feels right. Then, when they complain about the pain, just tell them to have a positive attitude and it will go away.
All joking aside though, I really believe that a positive attitude worked miracles on getting me through chemo relatively unscathed. Scientific studies have shown that positivity is intrinsically linked with better health; lower blood pressure, boosted immune system and a better prognosis.
You might not be feeling like there’s much to be positive about right now. I found it almost impossible to feel anything good at first. That really only changed when chemo was underway, my tumour started shrinking and I felt hope again. But once I had it it propelled me forwards, and it will do the same for you.
The easiest way to do it is to find something positive to focus on. For me it was taking care of my daughter and writing my book “Growing”, that tells the story of the loss of my son and subsequent fight with breast cancer. For you it could be something like gardening, hiking, spending time with friends, painting. Anything that keeps your mind and soul occupied with something that makes you happy and gets those positive juices flowing.
Create your own unique, healing journey, stay strong and don’t give up. There is an end in sight, just keep going, one step at a time.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like my articles “answering the questions I had when I was diagnosed” and “was having breast cancer a gift“.
For more support and information about breast cancer and chemotherapy, head over to Breast Cancer Now.