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What Does Chemotherapy Feel Like? My Chemo Treatment Experience

Survivor Erika shares how it feels, physically and emotionally, to receive chemo treatment for breast cancer

The days leading up to my first chemotherapy infusion were filled with anxiety and fear—what would chemo feel like? How would my body react to 4 rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan followed by 12 rounds of Taxol? Would I be able to care for my young son and continue to work full time? Before I could agonize for too long, it was Thursday afternoon and I was spending my lunch hour and the remainder of my day at the cancer center. 


I can easily recall the first day, a beautiful summer afternoon in early August, 2015. Upon arrival to the cancer center, a temporary bracelet was placed on my wrist with a series of barcodes which accessed my medical information, and I was warmly greeted by my assigned Oncology Nurse for the day. We walked through a series of secure doors and entered a large room full of natural sunlight and smiling faces. I was warmly welcomed by the other nurses, patients and caregivers; easily recognizable as the “new girl” with my full head of hair and healthy skin pallor. I was shown to a cozy recliner with a heated blanket and asked if I would like some ice water. The visit began like most every doctor appointment with checking my vitals (weight, blood pressure and temperature).

 

My first chemo treatment begins

After the nurse accessed my port for the visit, I was ready for the day’s combination of prescribed medications—a sequence that I would learn over 16 total visits. My chemotherapy treatment started with saline to flush my port, then pre-medications for side-effects management. Next came the bags of chemo drugs, and finished with more saline. 

erika during chemoI felt “normal” and strong while the chemo medications were pushed through my body; I drank a ton of water to flush my system as efficiently as possible. I thought I would feel crummy instantly, but for me the side effects kicked in later.  

The entire chemotherapy treatment process went very smoothly and I was thankful for the accommodating health system where I had treatment. There were always plenty of snacks, beverages, books, art therapy opportunities, words of encouragement and support. Chemo didn’t feel like a party, but at least it wasn’t a dismal place of worry or sadness. Put another way, cancer is a club that no one wants to join but the people are really nice!

On those Thursday nights I would try to get as much rest as I could, since I would return to work early Friday morning.

 

The day after chemo felt like a terrible hangover

Around 6 p.m. the following day (TGIF!!) is when I would start feeling the worst hangover of my life… times a million. Every part of my body would ache and burn with side effects—inside and out, I constantly felt like I wanted to throw up and had no energy at all. Not even energy to raise my eyelids—that tired! Even walking from the bed to the bathroom and back took my breath away. For the remainder of the weekend, I made arrangements for my son so I could sleep, rest and do my best to eat something. Of course, everyone experiences these side effects differently.

One thing I noticed, after arriving to the cancer center for the first several chemotherapy appointments, was that I began feeling anticipatory anxiety. I hadn’t felt this since I was a child, jumping rope with friends. The first few times I was very nervous, I remember watching my peers enter and exit the skipping ropes with confidence—finding their rhythm and mastering their skills. I questioned my abilities back then, and felt similarly as I started chemo treatment. Would I be able to enter and exit chemotherapy without missing a beat—similar to the ropes? I had read and heard countless stories of women raising a child and working through a cancer diagnosis—but would I prevail or disrupt the beat and have to start over? 

Thankfully, the fear and anxiety dissipated as I found my groove and felt more confidence about my cancer care. I am happy to say that with the help of my medical team and amazing support system I was able to manage 16 rounds of infusion chemotherapy, a double mastectomy with lymph removal, 25 rounds of radiation, 12 rounds of oral chemotherapy and finally breast reconstruction—with poise and grace. I am not just surviving, I am thriving!

 

Amoena is grateful to Erika for so generously sharing her story.