How I Survived Chemotherapy

May 18, 2012
Craig R. Hildreth, MD
Craig R. Hildreth, MD

I confess that I have never taken chemotherapy. Strictly speaking this disqualifies me from commenting any further, so I should sign off now. If, however, you don’t mind hearing from one who has administered chemotherapy by the thousands and can bear witness to its effects, then please read on.

Well, this is not exactly true. I confess that I have never taken chemotherapy. Strictly speaking this disqualifies me from commenting any further, so I should sign off now. If, however, you don’t mind hearing from one who has administered chemotherapy by the thousands and can bear witness to its effects, then please read on. What follows are my thoughts on how one can emerge from this peculiar underworld with minimal damage to the body and spirit.

To begin, let’s remind ourselves of the first rule of chemotherapy: “There are no cowards in the treatment room.” All those willing to receive such treatment show their courage from the start. They expose themselves to baldness, nausea, infection, diarrhea, and other noxious side effects in the name of trying to increase their chance for cure, or at least a longer life. In order to make it through a course of treatment that can sometimes take several months to complete, one must display a certain degree of fortitude and patience, but are there any other tricks to surviving chemotherapy? Let’s pretend for a moment that your narrator is a patient and ask him how he did it.

“No way was I going through this by myself, Doc. I made sure my family came with me for each visit; in fact, I let the word out to all my friends that I could use help with transportation. Even the congregation of my church got involved. I never knew so many people cared about me until I decided to tell them I had cancer.

“When I got sick from chemo I didn’t try to figure out what to do next by myself. Sorry I had to call you all those times, but boy, I sure appreciate the medicines you gave me. Your nurses were full of great tips, too. I still use that mouthwash every day.

“You were right when you said to keep yourself busy. If I had just sat in my chair and felt sorry for myself like I wanted to it would have been a disaster. Thank you for telling me to go to my grandson’s high school graduation. We had a great time that weekend, and I didn’t feel bad at all.

“I didn’t know what questions to ask at first, so when you asked, and then answered them yourself, that was nice. Then I wrote down all the questions that came to me later so I wouldn’t forget them. When my kids had questions I had them write them down and send them to me. Seems like I kept forgetting what you said, but by the third time you explained it I got it. It’s not as scary when you understand something.

“I didn’t let on, but I was scared stiff when I first met you. Then when I saw that your office has a good sense of humor I relaxed and became myself again. I always heard that ‘laughter is the best medicine’ but I can tell you that it really helped me get through chemo. Hey-I take my cancer seriously, but not my fears. Oh, and don’t forget-I’m bringing my karaoke machine in two weeks to serenade the treatment room!

“I suppose I should tell you other things weren’t so great-my taste buds, my energy level, the days lost at work, the vacation we had to cancel, the blood transfusion. But each treatment you reminded me that I was getting closer to the finish line, so I started counting the days myself. They seemed to go faster when I thought about the first time I would come to your office and not have to go to the treatment room. Looking back now I don’t think it was that awful. My hair is growing back. My family is taking me on a trip this summer. I think if I had to give one piece of advice to the next person who has to do this it would be ‘Form a close team with your doctor, nurses, family, and friends, and then insist that everyone work like a real hero to help you get through this-starting with yourself.’”