10 Things to Expect When You Have Cancer

Cancer can be crazy-making but that’s completely normal
120214_bald_514x299by: Cindy Finch
photography: Kevin Morris/Flickr

Are you a normal cancer patient? Cancer treatment can lead to hair loss, body changes and shifts in your personality (thanks meds!). Although going through it can make you feel crazy, here are 10 “normal” things that patients can expect:

Rushing all over town. Care for the sick is not all in one place. If you have cancer, expect to make a stop at the oncologist’s office, the chemo lounge, the surgery center and at the lab for blood draws. Don’t forget that there will be frequent stops at the pharmacy, maybe even the emergency room from time to time, and support groups (if you choose). If you live in a rural area or far away from the medical center in your town, ask your doctor about volunteer drivers. The American Cancer Society keeps a list of people who are willing to help cancer patients get back and forth to their many appointments.

Shots, needles and lines. The life of a cancer patient can be summed up in one word, access. Everybody wants access to you. Whether it’s the lab tech taking your blood or the chemo staff giving you an infusion there are lots of “ins and outs” when you have cancer. You’ll get used to it. A few things that can help: If they offer you a port, a cath or a picc line, take it. This will cut down on the needle sticks you have to endure and make everyone’s access to you a whole lot easier. However, be on the lookout for red streaks or extra pain at these entry points, both can signal an infection.

Scanxiety [skan-zhay-i-tee] (n.): the sense of anxiety induced by an upcoming scan. Need I say more? Two words for you: Ati-Van. Ok, if you can’t get a hold of some benzodiazepines, try getting yourself ready for your upcoming scans this way: imagine that the scan machine is a security guard who works for you and is there to protect you and check for intruders and not a big, scary symbol of sickness. Even though your previous scans led to your current diagnosis it doesn’t mean your next scans will. Just stick to the facts, and remember that the scan machine might save your life.

The Flavor of Hell. If the underworld were to open its own restaurant and had a signature sauce they cooked every dish in, it would be Barium (the liquid you have to swallow before scans). Barium is actually a liquid light bulb. Essentially, it makes things light up in your gut when you’re in a scan machine so the doctor can see what’s healthy and what’s not. This watery chalk substance is also referred to as contrast. Some doctors have moved over to using a clear, tasteless liquid contrast for certain tests. If your doctor is not one of them, chug it down and realize it’s all a part of the plan to get you well. Cheers!

See also: Reimagine’s online classes, which teach a powerful set of skills to help you feel better immediately

You Glow. Welcome to radiation. If you have begun your radiation, it is likely that your oncologist will recommend certain precautions. Check here for the American Cancer Society overview of what to do. The nuclear reactor of radiation that you’re getting is probably powerful enough to give Spiderman his powers, but don’t fret! It will be over soon and you can get back to the business of living safe and sound.

Major Body Changes. OK, brace for it – your body either has or will change a lot because of cancer. Here’s why: the medications, treatments, side-effects and surgeries that go into modern day cancer treatments all take a toll on your body. Plus, when we are sick we’re exhausted so we lie down more, are less active and stay inside, which further complicates our body’s appearance. A mastectomy, hair loss, weight gain, face swelling, body sores, fingernail loss, paleness, all are normal during cancer treatment. For some good ideas about ways to take care of your health and the way you look, visit Look Good, Feel Better. They are an organization dedicated to helping you look and feel better during and after cancer.

Personality Changes. Steroids anyone? Common chemo regimens almost always include a steroid. Medications like dexamethasone, prednisolone, methyl prednisolone are some of the names they go by. Side effects can include a swollen face or swollen hands and feet, increased appetite, sleep problems and mood swings. But hold on a minute – these meds might make you look and feel different, but they also reduce inflammation and fight some cancers. Don’t fret. Let your loved ones know that steroids are your “frenemy” for a while and that you can all expect some changes because of it. Perhaps a little education for everyone will go a long way. Soon enough you will be D-O-N-E with treatments and NEVER have to do steroids again!

Everyone has a cancer story to share with you. Ugh, I know. Get ready because everyone and their mother will tell you about the person they know who had cancer. And, of course, there will be plenty of unaware (a.k.a “insensitive”) folks who also tell you the person they know that died from your type of cancer. Oy vey. Alright, relax. People are trying to relate to your story by sharing their own. Take it in stride and kindly excuse yourself from these types of conversations. If these “predatory story-tellers” don’t leave you alone, just remind them you are searching for things that help you feel hopeful and appreciate any inspiration they can bring.

Everything tastes like metal and rocks. Bring on the chemo. Depending on the type of chemotherapy regimen you’re on, your taste buds can be affected. Your new threshold for sweet, salty and bitter tastes may all change and a “marinated in metal” flavor may creep up in to all your meals. This side effect will likely go away once your chemo days are behind you. For good ways to mange this check out Chemo Care’s list of ways to assist your taste buds during this phase of your journey.

Your healthcare team wants you to meet NED. Every physician, nurse and technician who helps you along the way is hoping you can meet a very special friend of theirs named NED. NED is why each and every one of us who work in healthcare chose our profession. NED is who we pray for when we close our eyes and ask for help for our patients. For you to meet and become close friends with NED is our highest hope for you. NED, No Evidence of Disease, is ultimately the goal – NED is why you have to go through all you’re facing right now.

So as you go through your day today, remember that even amidst the difficulties you are facing, more people are surviving cancer than not. Likely, you will be one of them. May NED come and find you sometime soon. Until then, carry on and know that though cancer can make you feel crazy you are normal—just remember to do what feels right for you.

Cindy Finch is a Reimagine Pillar Guide and a cancer survivor. She has worked at the Mayo Clinic and specializes in supporting patients and families journeying through terminal or traumatic illnesses. Cindy is also a mother of three children and is a trained public speaker. When not with her family, she enjoys developing educational symposiums on a variety of health and wellness topics. Follow her on Twitter @5thstepofcancer.

Cindy is one of the authors of Nancy’s List new anthology written for newly diagnosed cancer patients by those who have walked the walk. I Am with You … to be launched in February.

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