When I was first diagnosed, and told that I’d be getting chemotherapy treatments, I really had no idea to expect. In my head, I was picturing being strapped down to a chair while a green laser shot into my eye, so I’m pretty sure I thought chemo was what turned Bill Bixby into the Incredible Hulk.
In the hopes of saving other people unnecessary worry about being Hulkified, I thought it would be a good idea to share my experience of what chemotherapy is like. Keep in mind that this is my experience, and your treatment regimen may be different.
For what it’s worth, the specific chemo regimen I started with is called E-CHOP (or CHOP-E, or CHOEP – basically they had a cool backronym with CHOP but then had to add an E in there), which stands for a bunch of drugs that I’ve forgotten the names of. I know the P is Prednisone (a steroid), and I think the E is for something like Etopicide, which is probably some kind of rat poison.
The chemotherapy I was originally receiving was scheduled over six three week periods. I would go into the hospital for days 1-3 (as an out patient) and get my drugs, then spend the next two and a half weeks recovering.
That chemo turned out not to be strong enough for my particular cancer, so my new regimen involves fewer days and stronger drugs. Now I receive drugs on days 1 and 8, and go in twice a week to have my blood tested to make sure the stronger drugs aren’t melting my blood.
Okay, so, back to the original topic, what is chemotherapy like? If you’re going to be receiving chemotherapy, your doctors will almost certainly recommend that you have a port installed. It’ll seem weird, but it really is a good idea. What they’re going to do is install a piece of equipment into your chest, under the skin, that will connect to the veins near your heart.
The reason having a port installed is a good idea is the amount of time and pain it will save you in the long run. The port allows a qualified nurse to only inject one needle, that can then be hooked up to multiple inward and outward lines. This way, any time the nurse wants to take some blood, or start a new IV line, they can just hook it up without having to inject you with anything. If you have multiple days of chemo scheduled in a row, you can even leave the line in for a few days, saving you more injections.
Speaking of multiple days of chemo, how should you prepare on a treatment day? If you have a port, try to wear something that buttons up, to make your port easier to access.
I also tend to think of treatment days like airplane flights; Once you’re checked in, you have hours of sitting in one chair ahead of you, so you should make sure you have everything you need ahead of time.
Not pictured above: Granola bars, Powerade, and unstoppable and amazing superwife who will use the time you’re at chemo to clean and decontaminate the entire house, change your bed sheets, and even bring you lunch.
The place that you’ll be going to receive treatment is called an Infusion Center. Most larger hospitals will have one, and it’s basically a big room full of chairs with IV stands next to them. I’ve only been to two infusion centers, but both of them put “relaxing” images on the ceiling for you to stare at.
Your day will probably start by receiving what are called “pre-meds,” which are things to keep you hydrated and prepare your system to receive the stronger medications to come. You’ll know when you’re getting the strong stuff because the nurse will suddenly appear wearing a decontamination suit, and the IV bag will be covered in a brown wrapper with toxic symbols on it. The nurse will also likely need you to confirm your name and birth date before giving hooking you up to the stronger medicine.
As a side note, if you ask the nurses how long a days treatment will take, you’re almost certainly going to want to add about 20% to whatever they say. It’s not their fault, they think of time in terms of how much each “bag” takes, and just add that together. They typically don’t include the time between bags, or the extra time at the end of each bag as some of them tend to need a few extra squeezes to complete. If you’re told that your treatment will take four hours, you should probably plan on closer to five.
Once all of your medications for the day have been given, you’re free to go. Your treatment will of course have side effects, and I’ll talk about some of those in a future post.
Depending on your individual side effects, you’ll almost certainly need someone to drive you home. If you have more medications scheduled for the following day, you’re going to want to leave the port hooked up, as this will be easier than getting it hooked up again the following day.
I hope this was at least a little bit helpful or informative. If you have any questions, or if there’s some information I’ve forgotten please feel free to let me know.