Every cancer patient is a fighter. What do you understand from this simple statement? Cancer patients have to be 'strong' in fighting their disease to increase their chance of survival and recovery. Back when I was apparently healthy, as I meet and mingle with them in the wards on a daily basis (both the treatable and the terminally ill), during my previous study years, I have spent time wondering what it meant to be 'strong' for them. When I myself was diagnosed with it, I told myself to be 'strong'. But, what does that mean really? What are the obstacles that I will be facing? I was not clear. I'm sure most of you reading this are not clear as well, unless you're a cancer survivor. With this in mind, I wrote this entry. I hope it will be beneficial, especially to those who are newly diagnosed with cancer, to be mentally prepared as they embark on the journey to recovery. Also to those who have family members or close friends facing the same thing, I hope that by reading this, you will understand more about what they are facing, and thus treat them appropriately.
I read in an article once about chemotherapy. It was regarded by some as a 'Necessary Evil'. My understanding of this becomes clearer day by day. As the 'poison' seeps through the vessels of my fragile body attacking the unwanted cancer cells, some normal innocent cells had to die too. Like hair cells, and mucosal cells, they were among the martyrs, causing effects such as numbness of taste buds, mouth ulcers, and unavoidable hair loss. Other cells like muscle cells, though they don’t really die, but I could imagine how they felt as the cytotoxic chemicals flow through them, they would be petrified, causing me to have muscle cramps, especially at night. There were days where I would feel as If I had just woken up from sleeping after running a 5km marathon without pre-marathon stretching. There are times; I would suddenly feel warm, and feverish to the point of sweating. Other times, I felt chills, to the point of shivering. As the drug flow through my higher centers (Brain and spinal cord), the platinum-based chemo drug tickles my 'vomiting center', causing me to be nauseous most of the time. All of these sums up and portrays itself as a group of symptoms called chemotherapy effects.
Sounds scary aren't they? But do not fear. These effects will not be so profound if you know how to deal with them. After a few weeks undergoing treatment, I have formulated ways in dealing with these effects. It is done through personal observation, and the help of fellow cancer patients and survivors. For easy reference, I have listed them accordingly.
Once the doctors have established the diagnosis, read up about it. It will help you in having a clearer picture of your condition, its risks, its prognosis, and most importantly, the treatment. This will help you understand the situation, what chemo regime the doctor will be giving you, its importance, and its effects. You will be more prepared if you know what you will be dealing with, and you'll be able to pull through the chemo despite the effects, if you know the importance.
You must know who your real enemies are. They are not the symptoms, because these are unavoidable. No point to be stressed for something that will happen eventually right? You'll just end up frustrated. The effects will appear with time, but what we can do is minimize it. Our real enemy is our minds. Our mental strength is what truly matters. With a strong mental strength, our physical well being will improve too, InsyaAllah.
Never Fear, for Allah Is Always With You
There will be times when you feel that the pain is becoming too much. Have faith that for every pain that you had to endure, Allah cleanses your soul. Remember this, and remember of all the sins you had done before. Endure it with istighfar for the benefit of the hereafter, insyaAllah, you'll pull through.
Coping With the Chemo Effects
When you start to have the symptoms, find ways to fight it off. There are many methods. I'll share with you mine, but you may try finding the best method that suits you.
It is uncomfortable, no doubt. But don’t let yourself suffer, find the alternative cure. For me, I take sips of sugarless citrus and berry juices whenever I feel nauseous. Fresh oranges and warm lemonade helps too. Not only it alleviates the nausea, the rich vitamin C helps strengthen your immune system, thus overcome the bone marrow depression effect. Never resort yourself to artificially preserved fruits (Asam). It is harmful not just to you, but even to a normal healthy person.
Numbness of Taste and Oral Ulcers
Most chemo drugs are neurotoxic, as well as it kills fast growing cells. Since buccal mucosa ( Cells in the inner lining of mouth ) are fast growing epithelial cells, it tends to thin out. That is when you get ulcers. The key to minimize this is hydration. So, drink lots of plain mineral water. Better to drink bottled mineral water instead of boiled tap water. It is cleaner and contain minerals that is good for you. Another way to lessen the pain is by taking cold beverages and eating ice cream! Nyum2…^_^
Your taste buds will also be less sensitive, so you will suddenly find food becoming tasteless even though in reality, it is not. To overcome this, try eating strongly flavored foods, like curry, or tom yam. It helps to increase your appetite. But if it is difficult to find food that suits your taste, ignore the tasting part and eat up. Remember that your body needs the energy to fight cancer.
Loss of Appetite
This happens as a result of the nausea + tastelessness + Oral ulcers + the other effects. When your body is in pain, your appetite will be decreased. It is a normal mechanism. But you must never succumb to this! As I mentioned before, your body needs food for energy to fight cancer. So, whenever you feel like eating something, as long as it is not harmful to you, find it and eat it. Family members should be understanding and creative when it comes to food for cancer patients. If possible, try to make every meal enjoyable. If you cannot find your appetite, eat up anyway. Blend it and juice it for easy swallowing if you cannot chew, and don’t bother the taste. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Say NO to processed foods. Read up on foods that should be avoided for cancer. There are many theories. But for me, I choose to avoid only red meat, chicken, shellfish, soy products, and processed foods.
This will occur sometimes, especially at night. Overcome this by massaging with medicated ointments on the affected site, and cover up when you sleep. Wearing socks helps. Shower with warm water if possible because cold showers worsen the effect.
This is quite subjective. But basically, you know yourself better than anyone. Try not to exert yourself to much, but do not resort to sedentary lifestyle. You may do low impact workouts and do household chores to keep your heart healthy. Avoid heavy lifting. Whenever you start feeling tired, take a rest. Afternoon nap helps.
This may occur to some patients more often than to others, possibly due to dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. Try drinking lots of water and take a nap. If all means fail, you may take paracetamol.
If possible, your room should be air conditioned. So, whenever you start feeling warm, lower the room temperature. If not, get a table fan, and wear minimal or lose cotton clothing when you sleep.
Chills and Rigors (Cold and Shivering)
The opposite of the above effect, this time, keep yourself warm. Apply warm ointments. Drink warm lemonade. Sleep with a blanket. Avoid cold showers.
Some chemo drug has the effect of bone marrow suppression. This causes your immunity to drop. This means that you are easily infected by surrounding germs. This is bad for you, not just because of the illness, but when you are sick, your chemo will be postponed! That means longer treatment period. Not Good. So, to avoid getting sick easily, you should minimize your time outside the house. However, you may go out with proper protection like a face mask. I chose to wear a 'niqab' instead. That way, you do not look like you are sick, but at the same time you have good protection. Plus, extra coverage for muslimah.
Though not physically painful, this effect gives impact more emotionally especially for women because hair is an asset for them. For this, we have to be strong. Be assured that your hair will grow back. In fact, it will grow healthier and more beautiful. Should you shave? This depends on you. Some patients just cut their hair very short, and let it fall freely. But for me, it is easier to shave, so I spare myself the agony of seeing my hair scattered everywhere. But don’t shave so soon, because your hair won't be falling until a few weeks after your first chemo, IF your drug has this effect. Some lucky patients are spared from this effect. So, before you chose to shave, make sure your hair really is falling. It will start with your head feeling heavy, and your scalp starts having small slightly painful nodules ( This is when the drug attacks your hair roots), before your hair starts falling. Don’t be scared. It is common among cancer patients to have a bald head. You are not alone.
This is the worst of the effects. Good thing is, the severity depends on how you deal with it. This is when your faith in religion plays a very important role. For muslims, remember that Allah won't burden you beyond your capability to cope. You are the chosen one, the precious servant that He chose to be tested. Heavens awaits those who pass His tests. Quran, solah, and dua' are your weapons against depression. If you feel down, crying helps. Go where you can be alone with Him, and let your tears fall, washing away the burden you are feeling in your heart. He knows what you are going through better than anyone, and He listens.
That is all for now. A message to you fellow fighters, do not be scared of chemotherapy. It is not so bad if we know how to cope with it. Take this experience as a stepping stone to be a better you. Later you can proudly say, "I am a cancer survivor". With willpower and Allah's guidance, we will pull through, insyaAllah…