July is a month with some unpleasant memories for me (I have many good ones as well), one of them being it was the month I began chemo. This is one reason why I revisit the topic this time of year. If you’re facing chemo soon, are dealing with it now, deal with it ongoing because you’re metastatic, or if you just want to learn more about it, your input and questions are welcome.
When I learned chemo was to be part of my cancer treatment plan, the side effect I worried most about was losing my hair. That one definitely topped my worry list. Call me vain. I did/do not care. After that, it was feeling sick. I did not want to feel nauseous and have digestive issues, which we all know really mean bathroom problems. Like you perhaps, all I could think about were movies and TV shows I’d seen depicting chemo patients kneeling by toilets puking their guts out. Ugh…
So yes, no hair and puking. Those were my top side effect worries.
I was “lucky”. My nausea was kept under control pretty well. I did have digestive issues, but they weren’t horribly bad. Losing my hair, now that was horrible. I was not comforted by comments like, it’s only hair or it’ll grow back. In fact, I hated hearing things like that. I still cringe when I hear such things being said to chemo newbies.
For many of us, it is NOT just hair.
And let’s not forget, some chemo drugs do not cause hair loss. So assumptions about how a person feels or how serious her/his illness is should not be based on how she/he looks. But that’s a different post.
If part of your cancer treatment involves chemotherapy, more than likely before you begin your regimen, you will be handed a sheet of paper outlining possible side effects to expect with your particular drugs. The list can be quite long and daunting, yet at the same time, not all inclusive.
Generally, oncologists and nurses don’t spend a whole lot of time going over potential side effects with patients, at least mine didn’t. Maybe they think if we don’t talk about side effects too much, we won’t experience as many, or they won’t be as bad.
A little more discussion might be in order.
Reputable sites such as Cancer.Net, the BreastCancer.Org and National Cancer Institute have general information about side effects most commonly experienced with chemo. However, it’s imperative to discuss with your oncologist what your side effects might be with the drugs you are taking.
Besides hair loss and nausea, there were a fair number of other side effects on my list of things to expect as well.
One side effect I experienced that was not on my list (I don’t think it was anyway) which caught me by surprise was flushing.
What is flushing?
Flushing is a temporary redness of the face and neck (in my case my entire torso as well) caused by dilation of blood vessels. This results in bringing more blood to the surface of the skin, especially in the face, making it appear red and feel hot. Certain chemo drugs cause the body to create extra heat and flushing is a reaction enabling the body to release that heat.
The first time I experienced flushing, it was quite startling. No, it was downright shocking! Well, it was to me anyway.
Following one of my first infusions, I looked in the mirror the next morning and yikes, I was as red as a tomato! I was also extremely hot, as if I had a high fever. (I wonder if I did). I felt as if I might explode.
I remember feeling like a volcano ready to erupt at any minute.
My chest (with those horrible tissue expanders) felt even tighter than was “normal” for me during that time. It felt as if I were in a vice grip. I looked and felt miserable. And yes, I was scared too. It felt like a hot flash on steroids.
Luckily, this particular side effect didn’t last more than a day or so following each infusion. I should’ve taken a picture of myself in my “volcano” state, but that never occurred to me. I pretty much avoided cameras and mirrors during that time, in fact, I still do.
Lots of women (men too perhaps) take photos to chronicle their cancer experiences. I didn’t do much of that.
Flushing is just one more chemo side effect to be aware of and possibly ask about. Depending on the drugs used and how your body reacts, some will experience it, and some will not.
Like usual, if you know something might happen, it’s not quite as frightening if and when it does, right?
If applicable, have you experienced flushing?
If yes, were you forewarned about it?
What cancer treatment side effect was/is hardest for you?
Read more about preparing for chemotherapy in my book, Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy