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The Chemo Room

Ester Van Heerden-Hill, a member of CANSA Survivors – Champions of Hope Facebook Support Group for cancer patients shares her insights about getting through chemo…

Every now and then I like to write something about my cancer journey, and I always hope that it will be of use to somebody somewhere in a similar situation. This time I’ve decided to focus on the Chemo Room. Such a scary place for quite a lot of us. Whether you are waiting for your first session, or are going back for the umpteenth time, here are my (personal) tips on getting through it.

How can one possibly prepare for the Chemo Room? I remember my aunt phoning me a couple of hours before my first session and saying to me “well, I suppose it is like giving birth – it is going to happen, you can’t escape it, you will have little control, you will pray for the end, but you will get through it”. Hmm, yes. And you’ll never forget it either.

What do you take with? Your mobile / smart phone (loved ones that cannot be there would like to know how you’re doing – make sure it’s charged, or take a power bank). A tablet if you have one. They normally have good wifi, so that makes it easy and cheap. Something to eat / drink. A sweet treat. Small bottle of water. Book or magazine. Ipod and earphones. Hand sanitizer. Reading glasses. Diary / paper and pen if you want to write something down.

What do you wear? Anything comfy. Seeing that you’re going to spend your day in a lazy boy, consider putting on sweat pants instead of tight jeans. An ordinary T-shirt with short sleeves works well when they need to put you on a drip. Take something warm but make sure the long sleeves aren’t too tight. It will have to fit over the IV line. Comfy shoes, socks, head scarf or cap. Leave the heavy jewellery at home, but if you want to wear your lucky charm, please do.

What do you eat or drink? Water is always good. Furthermore the Chemo Room will normally provide free coffee or tea. If you prefer a specific taste, take it along. I used to eat lots of apples. Somehow that tasted good to me. Peel and dice beforehand. But I suppose anything you really like to eat. I would skip anything that gives off a strong odour though, like garlic and boiled eggs! And leave the perfume at home as well.

There is something called Chemo Room Etiquette. For instance, it’s OK to take a selfie, but make sure no other patients are in the picture. Well unless they want to be of course. And I can imagine wanting a picture together with your favourite Chemo nurse. Who wouldn’t want to have a picture of an angel? It would just be difficult to choose one as they are all angels. Keep your voice down and don’t share gory details about your cancer (we all have those) – it’s quite possible that the person next to you suffers from the same cancer. And don’t stare.

If a loved one feels up to the challenge, take him or her along. It will be an eye-opener for them and they will be less scared after they’ve witnessed the procedure. People have all kinds of ideas about chemo, and only part of it is true. And good company certainly makes it a less lonely place.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. “Why do I need the injection beforehand?“ “Why do you need to check my blood pressure so often?” “How long is it going to take?” “How many bags am I going to need?” “What is my chemo called?” “Is it going to hurt?”

Speak up about your needs. Don’t be shy to ask for a blanket, pillow, glass of water, a warm beanie bag, the wifi password, the daily paper, etc. You can even ask for a little bit more time before they put in that damned needle. But once it’s in place, it’s quite a relief. It is the anticipation that drains you.

Accept help. This is such an important one. We tend to think we can do it alone. I’ll never forget getting up from my lazy boy and walking to the kitchenette to fix myself a cup of coffee. On my way back I had to deal with the cup of warm coffee and the drip, which of course never leaves your side. A really old guy (he looked close to 90) – not one of the patients – got up and offered to carry my cup for me. I was on the point of saying “no thank you, I can carry it myself”, but thankfully I managed to bite my tongue. I realised this was an incredibly sweet offer, coming straight from the heart. He was desperate to help me. Compassion flowers in the Chemo Room. So let people help.

Social media is a mine field for cancer patients, but try to use it to your advantage. On chemo days I used to post on Facebook. Yes I admit it! Early in the morning I would look for a mantra, poem or quote that would inspire me for the day. They can be a great motivation. You will have something to hold onto, it will be inspirational for everybody that reads it, and it reminds your friends and loved ones that you are in need of positive thoughts and prayers. They’ll step up to the plate, trust me.

Look out for the first timers in the room. Not difficult to spot them. A smile can do wonders to lift their spirits. On that note, one cannot help but notice each another in the Chemo Room. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Share the odd snack, pass on the odd magazine, play the odd game.

Take frequent naps and don’t apologize for them. You’re even allowed to snore.

Appreciate the compliments. Don’t think to yourself, “oh my word, I looked in the mirror this morning and I know I look horrible, so don’t lie to me” or “what do you mean I look good, have you lost your mind?” People genuinely want you to feel just a little bit better. No hidden agendas.

Learn from each other. Be inspired by each other. I think it was my second visit to the Chemo Room that the lady next to me got a visit from her best friend. She handed her a small beautifully wrapped package. It contained one of those stunning Pandora charms. I couldn’t help but notice her utter delight and she immediately added it to the other charms on her bracelet. Tears in her eyes. Turns out it was her “Chemo Bracelet”. For every chemo session somebody in her family or group of friends gifted her a charm. After that session I bought myself a bracelet and my dear husband followed suit with the charms. So yes, be aware of the impression you make on others in the Chemo Room – it can have a real impact on others!

Cultivate your own rituals or habits. One of my dearest friends rocked up with Creme Caramels as a sweet treat. They incidentally used to be my mother’s favourite. This became a habit, and I later renamed them Chemo Caramels.

Like I said, the Chemo nurses are angels. They are compassionate, warm, well-trained, ultra capable, highly and uniquely qualified to provide the best care for you. They will laugh with you, feel for you, try their best for you, become one with you. I’m convinced that, in private, they will cry for you.

The Chemo Room is a slice of LIFE in every way. Don’t be afraid to be yourself in there. There’s also a lot of love in there. Even humour.

When none of these tips work for you, it’s also OK. Close your eyes, love and forgive yourself and know that you are doing the best you can.

28 January 2020

*Published with Ester’s permission…

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