If I had to undergo lifesaving chemotherapy over again now that I know what it includes and what I will be left with, would I?
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33, I thought I was an adult. I thought I could make sound decisions on my own and pave my way through this oncoming battle with grace.
But I was wrong. I wasn’t as informed as I thought I should be. I didn’t know the right questions to ask, and I didn’t have any idea just how big the abyss really was on the other side of treatment.
It begs the question: If I had to do lifesaving chemotherapy over again now that I know what it includes and what I will be left with, would I? The answer for me isn’t simple, but it’s a solid yes.
I went through not one, but three types of chemotherapy. My oncologist told me on my last day that I had experienced the worst side effects he had seen in his entire medical career.
We ended that part of my treatment 2 weeks earlier than planned because I was physically and mentally exhausted, and my body couldn’t take anymore. I experienced everything from violent nausea and vomiting to the skin on the bottoms of my feet burning so badly I could no longer walk.
Nose bleeds appeared every hour on the hour for 9 months straight. My bone pain kept me up screaming at night, no matter what I tried to help me get through it. I thought I was struggling, but truthfully, that was just the beginning for me.
I sit here now, exactly 4 years from the day I got diagnosed, and I have so many more things to show than any of those side effects.
I sit here now, exactly 4 years from the day I got diagnosed, and I have so many more things to show than any of those side effects. Some good, some bad.
When we speak about informed decisions, we try to look at the overall big picture. I was young and ill-informed, and my team of doctors didn’t speak to me as if I was a full-blown adult yet. They grazed over the worst side effects when telling me that chemotherapy and surgery were sure choices to save my life.
My invasive ductal carcinoma was fast and mean, and we needed to hit it immediately and with a lot of power. I was given lists of websites and resources, and I did my absolute best trying to decipher the medical jargon I was reading as if I understood it.
I thought to myself that my doctor had spent a significant amount of time in school learning what he needed to know to save people like me and that I should trust his medical license and go with the plan he laid out for me. So, that’s precisely what I did.
What I didn’t know on day 1 of starting chemotherapy is that many people don’t experience the “worst” side effects from chemotherapy — the truly bad ones. Most go through it and come out the other side cancer-free, and thankful to be.
While I came out the other end with no evidence of disease in my body, I also finished chemo with a laundry list of permanent side effects that would remain with me.
Debilitating headaches accompanied by nausea and vomiting started off a chain of side effects that seemed to keep growing and changing. A few worth mentioning: reduced bone density, heart irregularities, loss of focus and memory, trouble sleeping, digestive issues, medical post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe depression.
On top of that, I also experienced blackouts, blood pressure irregularities, and constant stomach pain.
Having to readjust my life to accommodate headaches that put me down for days at a time is horrible, but death would’ve been worse.
As we combat each of these leftover side effects, I get frustrated with this new normal I’m living. Having to readjust my life to accommodate headaches that put me down for days at a time is horrible, but death would’ve been worse. Even still, as each year passes since my diagnosis and treatment, I am more and more thankful that I made the choice I did.
I have since carried a baby girl in my belly and watched my older children experience their first days of middle school. I have come close to completing my degree in human biology so I can further my education and become a nurse to help those on the same path I took.
For a long time, I was angry that no one mentioned to me the things that would remain with me after treatment. After spending time in this beautiful life since, I can honestly say that if I had been told verbally each thing I may experience after treatment, I may have made a different choice then.
However, I will forever be thankful I made the exact choice that I did. That choice gave me life. It gave me time to travel with my husband and carry our youngest daughter. It gave me perspective.
While this may sound like I’m suggesting foregoing chemotherapy, it’s actually the opposite.
I want you to read the jargon they send home with you in pamphlets. Check the websites and ask previous patients about their experiences. Ask them what tools helped them get through with less pain, what helped them calm their minds, and what helped them prevent their spirits from breaking. Those are the important things to note.
Inform yourself, and then bring someone with you to your appointments so you can have another adult brain help you ask all the questions you may not think of. You are strong and you can do this — just make sure to do it well-informed, and then hold on tight.
Fact checked on September 29, 2022
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