What’s chemo like?

ChemoOne question I often get from people is “what’s chemo like”?  If you haven’t already started chemotherapy, let me warn you now that you will probably get a lot of questions from family members and friends who will ask “what is chemo really like” and “is it as awful as it sounds?”  Then they’ll sometimes make “the face” – pity, fear, or anxiety over your illness.

I’ve had chemo several times, and here I am living to tell the tale.  Chemo can be a scary concept when you first hear about it – your doctor tells you that you must succumb to having toxic chemicals sent into your body on a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or other basis.  You’ve probably spent days (or nights) scanning the internet to read the tales of others who have gone before you.  You often don’t know where to turn for help – everyone is an “expert”, whether they’ve personally experience chemotherapy or not, and many people seem to have a visceral reaction to the whole idea of chemotherapy.

Let me dispel some of the mystery…first, understand that this is your personal journey and you may react well or poorly to chemotherapy. Second, no one can predict in advance what it will truly be like.  For me, the best way I can describe it is that it’s usually kind of boring.  Yes, boring.

You go to your doctor’s office, get a short physical exam, and then your doctor or his/her nurse will test your blood to make sure you are healthy enough to have chemo that day.  Next, you get sent to the infusion room which is where the actual treatment will take place.

You pick a chair (or get assigned a chair), and wait until the chemo nurse is ready to start your infusion.  While you wait you can read, snack, listen to a podcast or music, talk to others who are there for treatment, or talk to your friend who came with you for this momentous occasion.

If you are getting an infusion, you will get a catheter placed in your arm, which is how they get the chemo into your veins, unless you have a port. Getting the catheter started feels similar to getting a shot or when someone draws your blood for a lab test.  One quick pinch and then it’s done and taped down.  After that I generally don’t feel it for the rest of the time I’m there.

That’s it.  Depending on how you react, and what type of treatment you are receiving, you might fall asleep, you might feel a little cold (or a little hot), or you might get a funny taste in your mouth.  Sometimes you might have an adverse reaction, but your doctor and the chemo nurse will be closely monitoring you for any signs of a problem and will take care of it quickly.

When you are done, the nurse removes the catheter, puts a bandaid over the spot where it had been, and sends you on your way.


Barbara Spalding RDN Culinary Dietitian

Hi, I am

Barbara Spalding MS, RDN, Culinary Dietitian

As a dietitian and world traveler, I love bold flavors — in food and in life. 14 years ago, I fell down the rabbit hole into Breast Cancer Wonderland. Since then, I’ve learned to cook differently while savoring the pleasures of food and companionship. I’ve built a resilient new life and a bold new kitchen. Let me show you the flavors of the world.
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