Chemotherapy and fear are not hand in hand
You just learned you have cancer. Your life is about to turn upside down. Your mind is racing 100 miles an hour with all kinds of fears and worries when you hear another frightening word – chemotherapy. Now, panic and anxiety overwhelm you.
Question after question pops into your head … what will happen to my body? How much pain will I have? Will I lose my hair? Will I be nauseated and tired all of the time? How bad are the side effects? How will my treatments affect my family? Will I lose my job?
Take a deep breath and exhale. Your physician is your new best friend. He or she will be at your side throughout this new journey into the unknown, answering all of your questions thoroughly while offering reassurance and support every step of the way.
Although many cancer survivors say they were fearful of undergoing chemotherapy, most acknowledge the treatments weren’t nearly as bad as they anticipated. In fact, many cancer patients say their fears were unjustified. Until you experience it yourself, you don’t know what to expect.
Here are answers to some most commonly asked questions.
Is chemotherapy painful?
Chemotherapy is not painful; most patients have little or no physical discomfort during chemotherapy. For those who do, it often is alleviated by mild doses of certain medications. Sometimes, the anxiety of what you are going through can heighten your perception of pain or discomfort.
Bringing along a family member or friend during your treatments will help alleviate your anxiety and may lessen your pain perception. You will sit in a comfortable chair or recliner, and can read, watch TV, sleep or talk with other patients. The experience can be more uneventful than you expect.
Will I lose my hair?
Most undergoing breast cancer chemotherapy will lose their hair unless they choose scalp cooling to prevent hair loss. Scalp cooling systems are tightly fitting, strap-on, helmet-type hats filled with a gel coolant that’s chilled to between -15 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. These systems work by narrowing the blood vessels beneath the skin of the scalp, reducing the amount of chemotherapy medicine that reaches the hair follicles. With less chemotherapy medicine in the follicles, the hair may be less likely to fall out.
What side effects should I expect?
Patients experience different side effects and for varying lengths of time. Your physician will discuss the possible side effects you may experience that result from the medication and dosage you are taking.
Common side effects during chemotherapy include: nausea (very controllable with medications), hair loss, low blood counts – not simply anemia (very controllable with medications), constipation, and fertility problems (more information is below on fertility problems).
Side effects are not the same for everyone; in fact, some patients may have few or no side effects. In addition, some side effects can be prevented with the help of extra care and medication.
Will I have any fertility problems?
Women who want to have more children often are referred to a fertility expert prior to initiating chemotherapy. Some are give medication to suppress their ovaries intentionally prior to chemotherapy. Once chemotherapy is complete, the medication is discontinued. This may improve the return of ovarian function.
Age, and the types of chemotherapy and doses a woman receives, can affect fertility. Women under the age of 35 have the best chance of becoming pregnant after treatment. Ovaries occasionally are suppressed in premenopausal women.
Before treatment begins, talk with your physician about the chemotherapy drugs you will be receiving and their fertility risks.
Will I lose my appetite?
Certain foods may taste differently, and you may lose your appetite temporarily. In most cases, your tastes and appetite will return.
Here are other questions to discuss with your physician prior to chemotherapy:
- How do I prepare physically for chemotherapy?
- How much chemotherapy will I need?
- Can I take supplements?
You’re stronger than you think you are.
Yes, cancer can be scary, but do not let your mind run wild with unfounded fears. If you have specific worries, tell your doctor or nurse exactly what you’re afraid of. They will help you.
Remember, you are not alone. You have a team of compassionate physicians and nurses who will support you every step of the way.
The team at Comprehensive Breast Care implement individualized, evidence-based treatment plans for each patient. Our goal is to provide expedited care and help patients make informed decisions about their treatment.
Eric Brown, MD, FACS, is board certified in General Surgery and certified in Breast Ultrasound. He previously served as Director of Oncology Services at Beaumont Hospital in Troy, and also as Director of the Center for Breast Health at Beaumont – Troy. He was voted top breast cancer doctor for 2015 by Newsweek Magazine, and has been named a “Top Doc” for Metro Detroit by Hour Detroit Magazine for the past eight years.
Linsey Gold, DO, FACOS, FACS, is a fellowship trained breast surgeon and certified in Breast Ultrasound. She is Fellowship Director of the Breast Fellowship program of McLaren/Karmanos Flint, and was the first Director of the Comprehensive Breast Center at Genesys Regional Medical Center in Grand Blanc before she opened her own private practice. She was named a “Top Doc” this year for Metro Detroit by Hour Detroit Magazine.