Breast cancer thriver Jenni Eyles takes us back through her chemotherapy journey, and shares her eight top tips on how to cope with chemo, and how to thrive during what can be a challenging time.
I did chemo. I did 16 rounds of chemo, and it was no picnic in the park. Some days were harder than others, some moments were excruciating. At times, I couldn’t cope.
Here's the thing though—it wasn't all bad. There were definitely moments of normality during my cancer and chemotherapy journey, but in hindsight, there are things I could have done that might have made the good outweigh the bad more often.
Don't get me wrong, I had a pretty good attitude and made the most of the good days—but on reflection, there are some things I wish I had known. I wish I had been armed with some tips to make the days less crappy.
So what would I say to others who may be looking for tips to help them cope with chemo?
1. I would have hired a cleaner straight away.
My pride got in the way, and I waited more than six months before engaging a cleaner. I wouldn't wait again. Give yourself back some time, take the pressure off you and the family, and hire the cleaner.
2. Sleep, I would get more sleep!
Chemo can make you feel tiredness like you've never felt before. But I also believed that, if I gave in to the tiredness and slept during the day, that I was somehow failing. What I've learned since is that taking a nap gives my body a chance to rest and heal from the cancer treatment. Sometimes sleep evaded me, steroids kicked in, and I sat up watching TV reruns ‘til 4am. What I’ve found help me when I was desperately trying to get to sleep was an essential oil like lavender, warm wheat packs, and short guided meditations that I download onto my phone.
3. I would keep reminding myself that the world wasn't ending
For a few months in the beginning, I truly thought my life was ending, and that breast cancer had already beaten me. I tortured myself with thoughts of the 'last birthday' or other big events, and desperately tried to hang to life. What I now realise is chemo wasn't the death sentence I fantasised it to be—it's a treatment. When I had the awakening that the doctors were administering treatment to give me a better shot at life, it was like a veil was lifted and I started living. No one has guarantees on how long they are in life for; all we have is the moment. When I learned to savour the moment, change my attitude and be present in the moment, then life changed for the better. Coping with chemo felt possible, all of a sudden.
4. I would have accepted help with cooking
Food can be tough to stomach when undergoing chemo, but so can cooking it. While I had generous friends who delivered casseroles and lots of lasagne to try to help me cope through cancer treatment, there were still plenty of nights of added pressure as my husband taught himself to cook the family meals. When a partner is working AND coming to medical appointments AND looking after the family, it can be tough going. Grocery shopping and cooking just add to the stress.
If I had to do chemo again, I would rally my mates and work out a cooking roster. This way, there would be no double-ups. Food could be catered to taste, and friends and family would feel like they were contributing and helping in a practical way. It would also save my poor husband the stress of supermarkets and cooking after a long day at work. An app like Thrivor can help you organise this with your support network.
Another option is meal delivery services. If the budget doesn't stretch, then perhaps well-meaning friends and family could chip in.
5. I would have accepted help with shopping
Every week I would do what I call the 'supermarket shuffle'—bent over a shopping trolley, willing my body and brain to get the grocery shopping done. Why I didn't use online grocery delivery services I don't know, but if I had to chemo again, I definitely would. Ease and convenience, and taking away the pressure to ‘dress up and get my face on’, would be just part of the payoff. I could fit in a little extra sleep if needed. And yes, if you want to cope with chemo, it’s needed.
6. I would have looked after my diet
To say I indulged in all the yummy foods while undergoing chemo is an understatement! I cried over cake, celebrated with cake and treated myself to cake... lots of cake. Part of my poor diet choices definitely came down to what I could tolerate, but if I'm honest, it was also that whole 'the world is ending' scenario playing out in my head. Looking back, I wish I had been a little more proactive about eating more whole foods and less of the sugary starchy treats.
7. I would have tried yoga from the start
I started yoga after I finished cancer treatment, but I wish I had known about the benefits of yoga before I started chemo. The mind and body connection was life changing for me. Understanding how to listen to my body and nurture it would have been invaluable at the start of my cancer journey. A little gentle stretching, quiet reflection, and exercise can also be beneficial for healing and mental wellness.
8. Home improvements can wait
I would definitely not make big interior decorating decisions if I had chemo again. Oh yes, for a few months I thought the world was ending (it wasn't), and I decided to have some home improvement jobs done. Choosing paint and blinds is a big decision at the best of times, but when your head is muddled from the cocktail of chemo drugs your choices could come back to haunt you. Mine did! Having workmen in your home and feeling displaced with furniture everywhere is also another headache you just don't need.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I made it through breast cancer treatment, and fingers crossed will never have to revisit chemo again. If you’re just starting your chemo journey, hopefully these tips can help you cope!