Years ago when I was a medical reporter, I did many stories on breast cancer. A lot of patients would say "if the cancer doesn't get you, the chemo will." Chemotherapy is a powerful tool to fight the disease but it can also be hard on your body. For me, the doctors recommended I undergo four rounds, just as preventive medicine. Not the news I wanted to hear.
My oncologist (chemo doctor) explained to me how chemo works and it made sense. After the surgery, the doctors believed they'd removed the tumor and as many of the cancer cells as possible. But if one cell happens to break away from the original site, it could travel anywhere in the body and start multiplying all over again. The chemicals race through the blood stream, seeking out those cells that seem to reproduce at rapid rates. The chemo kills those cells and hopefully the prospects of future problems. But it also kills good cells along the way. For example, your hair cells quickly multiply just like cancer cells. Chemo can't tell the difference between the two, so it kills both. By the second week after chemo, your hair starts to fall out.
Up until now, you can hide the scars, cover the changes. But when you lose your hair, it's the first time you LOOK sick. I went ahead and had my husband shave my head. There's not a lot you can control during this whole process, but I wanted to choose WHEN my hair was going. It was sad, but very empowering. I made the decision to shave my head; I was in charge at least for that moment.
The chemotherapy treatment took about three hours every third Friday. I would leave work and go straight to the treatment room where I'd be hooked up to I.V.s. Afterwards, I'd be sent on my way. Over time, I got very tired but I never was sick and I never missed a day of work. I know that's not the case for everyone, but for me, I didn't want this to slow me down. I rested when I felt fatigued, went to bed early when I could and stayed out of big groups. The chemo weakens your immune system, making you my susceptible to illness. Using a little common sense went a long way.
I don't think I was ever happier to "finish" something than I was when I completed all the treatments. Within a few weeks, I was starting to feel like my old self again. My "chemo brain" as it's called, would make me forgetful but now - four years later - I'm not sure how much was the medicine and how much is just part of getting older!
I've heard of some people opting not to go through chemo. They don't want to lose their hair. They don't want to deal with fatigue and they don't want to have to go through the ordeal. But in the end, I feel I've given myself the best chance of survival. By being aggressive early, I'll never wonder... what if.