Making Chemo More Comfortable

Oh, goodness – this topic is vast, and I think so many people have different experiences. During Mom’s three years being off and on chemo, she experienced a multitude of symptoms, but rarely experienced the classic nausea and vomiting.  She did, however, often have a low appetite, and so would eat things like tapioca pudding or Ensure to keep calories coming in.

Symptoms are different depending on what type of chemo medication a person is taking. Some meds result in hair loss, but not all.  Some cause a terrible amount of nausea, and some are easily controlled with anti-nausea meds.  But there were many other effects that were a surprise.

When Mom was on a chemo cycle, she often got terrible mouth sores, which we would attempt to alleviate with a prescription mouth wash made with lidocaine.  During these times, she would not be able to eat acidic foods, so our menu would change to accommodate her needs.

Another med caused the skin on her hands and feet to blister and even slough off, and made them very sensitive and sometimes painful.  When this problem was very bad, Mom wore soft socks and gloves, and stayed off of her feet.  We put natural lotions and ointments such as “Unpetroleum Jelly” in an attempt to keep the skin soft and less irritated. Sometimes we would put these lotions and ointments inside her socks and gloves.

For the chemo cycles that caused her to lose her hair, we found that her head would get very cold, so she slept with caps on.  She would pencil in her eyebrows and put on eyeliner as she also lost her eyebrows and eyelashes.

Chemo and the cancer also caused a lot aches and pains, which she, of course, took pain medication for, but also would alleviate with warm corn bags and heating pads, or warm baths.

And then there were the hundreds of other ways that chemo had an affect on how the body functions, causing interruptions and complications large and small.  So many things to remember as more and more new medications were introduced, i.e., chemo has messed with clotting factors so we are now taking Coumadin, and not to eat too many greens so as not to further mess with clotting factors.  And by the way, also make sure to eat lots of fruits and veggies so as not to get constipated, and so on, around and around. To say it is head-spinning to keep up with it all is a drastic understatement.

What were some of the side effects you or your loved one experienced with chemo, and how did you deal with them?

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Oregon, More Baldness and a Raccoon

Mom grew up in a small town called Payette, on the border between Oregon and Idaho, on the Idaho side.  As a child, she would frequently travel with her family to the Oregon coast, where, in good times, they would rent a house on Depoe Bay.

In the year after Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, there was so much going on that we didn’t really have time to think.  She underwent aggressive chemotherapy in advance of her double mastectomy, to shrink the cancer down enough to even do the surgery, as it had invaded the skin of the breast.  As a side-effect of the chemo, she was hospitalized for multiple pulmonary emboli, as well as some other fun stuff, such as pneumonia, kidney stones, and life-threatening leukopenia (very low white blood cell count).  Add to that the fact that I was starting up my new practice in Colorado after our sudden move to care for her (and the accompanying lack of income), and there wasn’t much time to think about anything else.

But after that first intense year, her cancer was knocked down to almost nothing, and Mom was feeling pretty good.  My practice was starting to grow, and I felt some freedom with funds, so I began to think about how we could make good use of this time with her.  I had a gap in client due dates in October of 2012, and I decided to book ten days in a beach house on the Oregon coast.  The trip would be a total of three weeks, including a long stay in Mom’s childhood stomping grounds in Idaho.

In the months leading up to our trip, she continued to get checkups and scans.  Most of that year, things went fabulously, and we were very optimistic.  Right before we left for our trip, though, a PET scan revealed that her cancer had spread again.  Mom was devastated that she would have to have chemo again, and resisted her doctor’s urging to start treatments before our trip.  After much family discussion, we agreed that a month’s delay in chemo was too much of a gamble with her aggressive cancer, and so she got her first dose right before we hit the road.


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In these two pictures from Payette Lake, you can tell that Mom wasn’t feeling as awesome as she could have been, but she had her hair back, and we were having a great time.  She loved road trips, and she was handling the long hours in the car with no problem, while we talked about anything and everything.  This was about a week into our trip, and the side effects of the chemo hadn’t really started yet.

This was the view from our living room in the beach house:

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Mom could not believe that this whole house was ours for ten days.  Her brother and nephew, as well as one of my sisters and her family, stayed there with us.  We had a glorious time, with Mom leading the way on a tour through all of the places she’d loved as a child:  The Sea Lion Caves, whale watching at Depoe Bay, the Newport bay front and eating at Mo’s.

Soon, though, the chemo started to catch up with us, and Mom’s hair began to fall out again.  And so, one of those precious nights in the beach house was spent in tears, as we all sat in the kitchen and I shaved Mom’s head again.  She was heartbroken to lose her hair again, and we were heartbroken to face the unspoken truth that, despite the optimism we had experienced earlier in the year, the cancer was here to stay.

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In this picture, Mom is holding her grandson, my Emmett, wearing the happy clothes she had purchased in Depoe Bay (she loved color).  You can tell she wasn’t feeling well, and she wore the hat because her hair was gone.  Much of the remaining time in Oregon was spent sitting on this couch, looking at the ocean through the picture window, enjoying the wood-burning fireplace, and practicing visualization exercises for her restored health.

Here’s where the raccoon comes in.  Let me preface this by saying that Mom had a really dark sense of humor, and as horrible as what I am about to tell you is, she thought it was hilarious.  There was a raccoon that lived around the beach house, and we had to lock our trash up in a special box outside so that the darn thing wouldn’t get into it.  Unfortunately, on the evening we shaved Mom’s head, the children took the trash out, and while they did lock the doors on the box, they failed to put the trash bags in the bins, and instead left them on the floor of the box.  When we emerged the next morning to go about our day, we found that said raccoon had stuck its evil little hand under the doors of the box and had ripped open the trash bags.  Our trash was all over the quiet road in front of our house.

Including Mom’s hair.

OMG!  I know, the horror.  Yep, it was pretty much as bad as you think it could possibly have been, crawling around, picking up bits of my mother’s hair from wet Oregon asphalt.

Luckily, we were comforted by the sounds of Mom laughing uproariously in the background as we suffered.

She’s probably laughing right now at the memory as I write this.  I hope she is.

The Treatment Plan and Baldness

Shortly after my family arrived in Denver and moved in with my mom on January 1st, 2011, she began her treatment plan.  I, and often my sister Bree, accompanied her to her frequent visits with the Kaiser oncologist, during which we sketched out a roadmap of what the next few months would look like.

You’d think if you had that much cancer in your breast, the obvious answer would be to undergo a mastectomy post-haste.  But, because the cancer involved her entire breast, including the skin, the doctor recommended that Mom begin with aggressive chemotherapy to shrink it before we moved on to surgery.

I should touch on the brief  “no chemo” conversation we had.  As I’ve mentioned before, Mom was pretty heavily into natural health, and she had said more than once that if she were to get cancer, she would likely want to go a treatment route other than chemo, as she felt that the chemicals would do so much harm to the healthy parts of her body and immune system, and diminish her quality of life.  The aggressiveness of her cancer, though, left her with few options.  It was pretty clear that if chemo didn’t begin right away, she would likely be dead within months.  And, I have to tell you, we can talk all we want about what we would do in this and that situation, but when death is staring you in the face, it’s so very hard to say no to conventional wisdom.

So, she began two types of chemotherapy, an oral medication that she took at home, and infusions that she would receive at the Kaiser facility downtown.  For the first couple weeks, we were amazed by how good she felt.  I had never before this been up close and personal to a person in chemotherapy, but, based on anecdotes, I had been expecting lots of nausea and vomiting. and extreme fatigue.  I had been anticipating her being bedridden, and having to have IV’s placed for fluids.  But these things did not happen on this first round.

After a time, though, it became apparent that the treatments had a cumulative effect, and that each time she went in for an infusion, she would feel a little sicker and have lower energy.  But, she was still very functional.  At some point, we began to notice that her hair was shedding a little bit, and then more and more, until one day, all that she had were little tufts of hair that were left in odd places around her head.  We wondered why every last hair didn’t just fall out?  Having those odd ones left made the experience all the weirder.

Mom started wearing stocking caps everywhere, including to bed, so it took a little while before my children realized that their grandma had lost her hair.  My son, Hayden, surprised her downstairs in her basement bedroom when she had her cap off one day, and there was an awkward “naked head” moment.  This was so interesting, because I know Mom had no intention of keeping any piece of her experience from the kids, but I think the side of her that was self-conscious about her baldness wanted to keep this part private as long as possible.

As much as Mom had spoken of being one of those courageous women, boldly going about their daily business with their beautiful, bald heads out in the open for the world to see, like a badge of honor, I think the reality was harder to bear then she had realized it would be.  So, she wore hats. And soon got into a program that helps connect people on chemotherapy with donated human-hair wigs.  These masks gave her the nerve to go about in public like a “normal” person, but nothing could really hide the effects that chemo had on her body.

And this was the tip of the iceberg on the chemo roller coaster that was to come.  Mom was so right about the chemicals “poisoning” her body, but they kept the cancer at bay and began to shrink the tumors.  They also almost killed her a couple of times.

The next step would be surgery.