Come with me to chemo!

I’ve had a lot of people ask me what chemo is like, so I thought I would bring you along with me to my third treatment (which actually took place yesterday). Before diving in I have to note the chemo experience is different for every single patient. This is simply my experience.

The night before treatment I pack my “chemo kit.” Everything goes in a backpack and includes: a HUGE jug of cold water (hydration is really important in this process, because ultimately you want to flush the chemo out of your system), snacks, a long phone charging cord, my phone, my iPad, a sweater and sometimes a blanket, word searches, a coloring book, my journal, a book to read (though most times I’m too drowsy to read), and my stuffed Grover doll from my {second set} of parents.

My blood draws and chemo treatments are done through a port that was surgically placed in my chest vs. having everything done via arm veins. With that it means approximately 30 minutes before I go to treatment I place Lidocaine (a numbing solution) all over my port. Thanks to my first chemo nurse I learned the trick of placing Press and Seal over the port to keep it from rubbing off on my clothes. Bet you didn’t know Press and Seal was so multipurpose, did you?

It’s then off to the Community Cancer Center I go to check in for chemo. This is the wall of hope I pass every time I go for an appointment, and I absolutely love it. Local artists created a tile, and it makes a collage of motivation for those of us walking in/out of the building.

Once the nurse calls me back I do a quick stop for vitals — weight, pulse, oxygen level and blood pressure. I’m then told who my chemo nurse will be for the day, and off I go to find my recliner. This chair will be my home for the next six or so hours. I always try to snag a spot by the window so I can look out over the garden / green space.

The nurse starts by asking how I’m feeling in the moment, and draws my blood. The blood draw is needed so they can ensure my platelets, hemoglobin and white blood cell counts are in range and safe to move forward with chemo. They also look at kidney function. I always say lots of prayers while I am waiting for results, because I know if anything is off I will be sent home for the day. Once results are back from the lab the nurse discusses them with me and let’s me know if I have the green light for treatment. If so, the “mixing lab” starts to mix my chemo and meds for the day (they don’t do this ahead of time, because chemo is REALLY expensive — more on that later — so they’d have to throw away a very expensive mix of meds if I was sent home). Everything is mixed based on my specific height, weight that day, etc..

Once we have the green light on counts, I get fluids to help hydrate me for about 30 minutes. As the chemo is being mixed, the nurse gives me a “pre-chemo cocktail” which is pushed through my port (you’ll see the line out of my chest in the photo above). The cocktail includes steroids, Benadryl, anti-nausea meds and a Pepcid type med. That’s followed by more hydration fluids until the chemo is ready.

I receive three total IV bags of medicine during chemo. The first is a medicine specific to the type of breast cancer I have (HER2+), and this bag takes 1.5 hours to complete. After that another 30 minutes of hydration fluids + the nurse flushes my line to ensure all previous meds are out of the IV line. Next up is my actual first chemo, and this bag takes 1 hour to complete. You know the drill — 30 minutes of hydration fluids + an IV line flush. The third and final bag of treatment meds takes 30 minutes to drip, followed by another 30 minutes of hydration fluids to round out the treatment day.

The most common question I get asked? “What do you do if you have to go to the bathroom?” …and trust me, based on all the fluids you’re receiving you WILL have to use the bathroom once, twice…sometimes four or five times. When it’s time to go, I unplug my IV pole, carry the cords and take the pole for a walk with me. The chemo keeps dripping.

Random fact about chemo: for three days after treatments, I have to flush the toilet twice. Since the chemo is toxic I put others at risk of contamination. Oh the things you learn on this cancer journey!

Prior to COVID, chemo patients were allowed to bring guests with them to help pass time. Unfortunately, I have to go solo. With that, a lot of people ask me what on Earth I do for six hours. If I’m being honest, the time has gone pretty fast during my first three treatments which I am very thankful for. Typically I have a TON of encouraging text messages I try and respond to. From there I listen to a lot of music and write in my journal. Once the Benadryl has worn off and I’m a little less drowsy I always finish chemo with a word search. I also snack quite a bit since I’m usually there from 8:30 – 2 or 3. I may be physically alone for these chemo treatments, but I never feel alone. There continues to be the most amazing peace and comfort surrounding my recliner every time I have a treatment.

The ladies in the purple scrubs are nurses for my section. There’s one nurse for every 3-4 patients (though usually there’s no more than 3 of us at any given time).
They pay VERY close attention to us to ensure we are not having reactions and remain physically as comfortable as possible.

Once I receive my final 30 minutes of hydration fluids I pack up my bag and am good to go. I say goodbye to the nurses, and off I go! Since I have such a hefty dose of steroids in my system I usually feel pretty good the afternoon/evening of chemo. The “blah” days usually kick in around day four/five, and then I usually have a tougher time around days 8-10 as well (though again, this is very different for all cancer patients).

The following morning I return to the cancer center for a booster shot, intended to start rebuilding my blood counts (since chemo destroys them). It’s a quick in and out process.

Another question I get a lot is about the cost of chemo. Go ahead and make sure you’re sitting down for this, because it’s….well, a lot. Each time I go for a chemo treatment the cost is $9,100. The booster shot I receive the morning after chemo is $6,000. So in a 24 hour window the medical cost is around $15,000. This is a very small portion of the costs you encounter during a cancer journey. At this point, my overall total medical bills are pushing $75,000 (that’s only three months into this journey). I may despise dealing with insurance (seriously, it’s been one of the worst parts of this cancer journey), but I’m thankful they have now started paying my bills since I hit my out-of-pocked limit for the year.

…and that’s a day in the life of chemo for a cancer patient 🙂

I’m learning a lot about the medical system, myself and more about cancer than I ever wanted to know while authoring this detour chapter. It can be overwhelming at times, but there is truly SO much beauty to be found along the way. So, so much beauty.

3 thoughts on “Come with me to chemo!

  1. Sarah from the day I met you I knew you were an angel from God. Your heart is the most precious I have ever known. We are so sorry to know you are going through this but we also know that God and all your many friends are here for you. We are praying every day for your strength and healing. Love, Pam and Morgan

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  2. Oh friend 😦 Gosh this hurts my heart to read . You are one badass, motorcycle riding lady and I know you will beat this .

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  3. Miss Sarah,
    I know you have the strength because I know your parents. And your mom is the one of the strongest Mah Jongg players I know!!! Where there is a will there is a way so keep the Hope, Trust & Gratitude in your heart because you have many prayers coming your way with a big rainbow 🌈 on its way. And I am one sending my prayers your way.🌻

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