The Not-So-Lovely World of Chemo Side Effects, Part I

A blog about breast cancer isn’t complete without a post or two about the various side effects experienced during chemo (and even after, for a while).

One of my least favorite side effects is what Taxol has done to my nails, which, thanks to the pain, is actually making it hard for me to type this post. My most painful finger is the middle one on my right hand. Trying not to use it is resulting in a whole lot of typos — which you will not have to see thanks to my irritating perfectionist proofreading tendencies.

Starting at the beginning…

Many women diagnosed with breast cancer are first started on an intravenous cocktail of Adriamycin and Cytoxin, referred to by medical professionals as AC. I won’t repeat what the rest of us call it. It isn’t nice.

AC, which I received four doses of (one every two weeks), is red in color and just looked creepy dripping through the I.V. line toward my body. One of the first things I would notice each time it was administered was a weird taste in my mouth. Sometimes I would experience it during the infusion, but usually I wouldn’t notice it until I got home. It wasn’t pleasant and affected the way my food tasted in a bad way. Thankfully, that bad taste would go away after three or four days, which left me with over a week to somewhat enjoy how my food tasted. When I could eat, that is.

Other side effects included:

Complete hair loss on my head. I was still shaving my legs and still had eyelashes and eyebrows. I know some women lose those with the AC, but I didn’t until I started the Taxol.

Nausea and vomiting. It was bad, but not as bad as I’d expected. I didn’t live next to the toilet, but it did make me nervous to go anywhere without a plastic bag at the ready. The “good” thing about having cancer in this day and age is the many anti-nausea medications available. They can work wonders…when they work. I was prescribed a few different kinds and found the best one that worked for me was Compazine, even though I still was nauseous on it. They made me feel “doped up,” though, and I really hated that feeling. Hated it.

Constipation. This is actually a side effect of the anti-nausea meds.

Low white blood cells. After my first AC dose, my white cell count was so low that I ended up in the hospital. I learned later that it was so low they could have lost me. I was sick with a sinus infection and the worst sore throat of my life, thanks to my inability at the time to fight the infection. In the hospital I was put on Dilaudid (a pain med stronger than morphine — just getting rid of the pain was heavenly) along with antibiotics, and received one or two shots of Neulasta, which stimulates white cell production. I also received a blood transfusion. My doctor lowered my next dose of AC and, thankfully, I never did end up back in the hospital. Some people just react badly to it, and I was one of them.

Mucositis. Mucositis is a condition that develops when the chemo attacks the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. It can happen anywhere from the mouth downward, and for me, it was my throat. I had a constant store throat for months, one that only went away completely sometime in the last few weeks. Maybe I shouldn’t say completely, because some things still make my throat swell up and hurt, like red sauces and chocolate. (Isn’t that sad? Chocolate!) A sore throat caused by mucositis can be downright miserable, and in the beginning Oxycodone, ice cream, and popsicles (one right after the other) were the only things that would make it manageable. I was so glad when I was finally able to stop taking the Oxycodone and could think clearly again. Eventually, cough drops like Halls or Ricola — and Tylenol — were all I needed, along with the occasional popsicle.

Needless to say, I was glad to be done with the AC regimen, but after reading horror stories about Taxol online (don’t do that), I wasn’t too excited to begin that one, either. Read all about it in Part II, coming up.

(By the way, for an excellent resource on getting through breast cancer and living a full life after treatment, check out Living Well Beyond Breast Cancer by Marisa Weiss and Ellen Weiss. This book has been one of my constant companions.)

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Sally Dinius is writer-in-chief here at CrazyBusyMama.com, a blog created to inspire and motivate busy mamas everywhere to feel healthy, fit, and in control of their lives. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sallydinius, and come join the CrazyBusy Mama Facebook page by clicking here. And don’t forget to check out the new CrazyBusy Mama Quick Guides available for your Kindle or Kindle app!

Things I Get to Check Off…

I’ll be heading into Seattle later today for my next-to-last chemotherapy infusion. Before I do, however, I thought this would be a good time to fill you in on my “timeline.” In other words, what’s still ahead for me — and when — regarding kicking this cancer in the arse. (That’s Olde English for…oh, never mind.)

First of all, in case you’re wondering, the type of cancer I was diagnosed with is Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I had one tumor in my left breast and at least one affected lymph node (it looks like a few more were affected, as well, but they weren’t as concerned with those…they’ll all be coming out, anyway). The cancer is estrogen and progesterone negative (not affected by those hormones) and Her2/neu positive. No, I do not know what that means. Could I ask? Could I Google it? Yes. I don’t want to. Right now, I just want to focus on getting well and not get discouraged by all the definitions. I realize that sounds a little childish.

Originally, I’d thought I was told my cancer was “triple negative,” but I found out sometime back that isn’t the case…which is, apparently, a good thing. Her2/neu positive cancers can be treated with Herceptin — more on that in a moment.

So…timeline. Already checked off, aside from the diagnosis and a battery of tests that included a biopsy, a few different MRIs, an abdominal CT scan, two MUGA (heart function) scans, etc., was my first round of chemo which consisted of Adriamycin/Cytoxin, otherwise affectionately referred to as “AC.” It is also known as “red Kool-Aid” and “the red stuff from hell.” (I apologize if that offends you — I’m just reporting it as I hear it. It does, by the way, live up to that last reference very well.)

Next up was Taxol/Herceptin, which I am almost through with. Taxol is the chemo, Herceptin goes along with it to bind with the Her2 receptors in the cancer cells. I’m almost done with the Taxol, but not the Herceptin. I have two more Taxol/Herceptin combo infusions left.

After the Taxol is finished, I’ll continue going in for Herceptin infusions every three weeks through November.

The next “big thing” I’m looking at is surgery. I’ll explain that a little better in another post. I’ll be meeting with my surgeon before the end of the month to discuss what will be happening and to schedule it. I also need to meet with the plastic surgeon again to let him which route I decided to take.

After surgery will be six weeks of radiation therapy. It will be three times a week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Oh…yay. I’m not sure when these treatments will be done — most likely late spring.

So…I’ll be off in Benedryl dreamland later today. Getting there and back might be interesting as Seattle is in the midst of some much hoped-for (by some) wintry weather. Let’s hope I-5 doesn’t become a parking lot.

Have a great Monday, my friends. :-)

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Sally Dinius is writer-in-chief here at CrazyBusyMama.com, a blog created to inspire and motivate busy mamas everywhere to feel healthy, fit, and in control of their lives. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sallydinius, and come join the CrazyBusy Mama Facebook page by clicking here. And don’t forget to check out the new CrazyBusy Mama Quick Guides available for your Kindle or Kindle app!