There’s no doubt that cancer is a persistent and aggressive disease that claims way too many lives. However, thanks to medical treatments such as chemotherapy, more people are surviving it than ever before. Despite that progress, though, it remains a widespread condition.
Cancer-related deaths have been steadily dropping in recent decades, and they’ve fallen by a quarter over the past 25 years. That’s obviously great news, and a variety of contributing factors are responsible for this significant improvement. Advances in modern technology allow for swifter diagnoses, for example, and smoking is less popular than it was.
In addition, when doctors detect cancer, they’re more able to treat it thanks to improved medical procedures. The aforementioned chemotherapy – or chemo for short – is one of them, and you’ve probably already heard of it. But it’s a sensitive and personal topic to many, so how much do you really know about the process?
Well, cancer survivors are breaking the silence on what chemotherapy is actually like in order to prepare and educate others. The experience is different for everyone, of course, but these accounts are both touching and enlightening. So, whether you’re facing chemo yourself or just curious about the process, survivors want to share their stories.
What we call cancer is actually an umbrella term for many different conditions resulting from mutated cells. Our body is filled with genes that naturally create proteins, but when one mutates, it changes the creation process. Consequently, a natural protein either doesn’t appear or grows unnaturally, which can create problems.
Sometimes these mutated cells are benign, but when they start to spread there’s still a danger of them turning into cancer. So, what causes the cells to transform in the first place? Well, medical experts have identified two different kinds of origin. There are those that occur as we develop (acquired mutations) and the ones people are born with (germline mutations).
Acquired mutations account for most cases of cancer, and a build-up of abnormal cell growth causes them. Such events lead to lasting gene damage, which can eventually create abnormal entities that people commonly refer to as tumors. Furthermore, outside sources such as damage from ultraviolet radiation, smoking or even aging can influence their growth.
Germline mutations are the rarer form of cancer that doctors only see in up to one-fifth of cases. The mutation is transmitted to an embryo and subsequently spreads when the latter develops into a baby. It eventually affects all the infant’s cells.
It’s important to note, though, that mutations aren’t inherently cancerous. In addition, our bodies also have some capacity to defend themselves against dangerous gene changes, and abnormal cells only turn into cancer after several mutations build up uncontrollably. At that point, however, our immune system often can’t help us anymore, so we have to turn to medical alternatives.
With this in mind, doctors have several different methods of treating cancer depending on its severity. To begin with, they can surgically remove tumors if they haven’t spread too far. Radiation therapy is another possible weapon against cancer of all different kinds, including benign growths.
To be specific, radiation therapy involves killing abnormal cells with precision beams of concentrated energy. External therapy of this kind predominantly uses rays shot from a beam projector. There’s also an alternative called internal radiation therapy, which is sometimes referred to as brachytherapy. For this procedure, surgeons implant a radioactive device close to the affected area.
The third kind of radiation therapy used on specific cancer strains is called systemic radiation therapy, and it flushes through the body. However, chemotherapy is perhaps the most well-known cancer treatment. And although it’s most commonly associated with the fight against cancer, chemo can be used to combat other diseases, too.
But what exactly is chemotherapy, and under what circumstances do physicians use it? Well, as previously mentioned, malign tumors can multiply and spread throughout the body, which makes them harder to treat. Therefore, you need equally tenacious drugs to fight them. Chemotherapy is the just that: it’s basically cancer poison.
Doctors flood the patient’s body with one or more drugs that seek out rapidly replicating cells. The medication then either slows down their growth or kills them entirely. And chemotherapy can also be used in conjunction with other treatments for extra ammunition against the disease.
On the other hand, the very nature of chemotherapy treatment results in side effects for patients. That’s because, as mentioned, the drugs simply attack cells that are spreading most rapidly, which aren’t always cancerous. Some healthy body parts – such as skin, digestive organs and hair – also replicate swiftly, making them a target, too.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is one reliable source of facts and figures about cancer in the U.S. According to the organization’s findings, 650,000 Americans experience chemo treatment annually across the country. And those people find chemotherapy challenging at the very least and can also expect some unpleasant reactions.
For one, we’ve already mentioned how hair grows quickly, making it a target for chemotherapy drugs. With that in mind, patients could start to lose their hair for the duration of the treatment. Depending on the type of cancer, though, a cranium-cooling head device called a cold cap might prevent scalp damage.
Fatigue is another reaction that a patient’s body may have to chemo, sometimes even making regular activities difficult. During bouts of exhaustion, it’s important not to push your body beyond its limits. People should rest when they don’t feel up to exercise, for example, and restrict themselves to light activity when they do.
Chemo patients also commonly experience nausea and vomiting, which can be controlled by medication. The treatment can temporarily compromise your immune system as well or make your skin and nails less healthy. There are many other side effects, but ultimately it’s impossible to say which ones will occur. That’s because the process affects everyone differently and depends on what drugs doctors use.
In turn, the specific type of drugs employed in chemotherapy varies depending on several factors. They include, but are not limited to, the form of cancer present and where in the body tumors are located. That’s not to mention that there are in excess of 100 cytostatic (cell-stoppping) drugs out there, either.
With that being said, chemotherapy is an integral part in the fight against cancer for many patients. But the process isn’t necessarily an easy subject to broach, and you rarely hear people revealing the intense, emotional experiences they’ve endured. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what members of question-and-answer site Quora did for enquiring internet users.
When someone asked what chemotherapy was like, in fact, many cancer survivors came forward with their own accounts. And since each experience is different, the stories were as varied as the contributors themselves. Take Arnav Kaustubh, for example, a man who responded to the question in 2016 after 16 bouts of chemo.
“It was tiring, painful and torturous,” Kaustubh recounted of his battle against cancer. “It was a time when I realized I wasn’t immortal. I was fragile. We humans live life as if we are never gonna die but this experience changed everything.” So, what side effects did he suffer from?
Kaustubh revealed that going bald had been a traumatic experience for him. “To be honest, I didn’t feel much difference initially,” he admitted. “But it takes some time until the effects kick in. I shaved my head with my trimmer. I could barely look at myself in the mirror after that.”
Things became much worse for Kaustubh before they got better, however. “After the fourth cycle, the real side effects started to kick in,” he continued. “The fatigue, unable to taste food like before, headache, etc.” Kaustubh described his time in chemo as lonely, even though he had a support network of friends and family around him.
Indeed, Kaustubh was trapped in what he considered a living nightmare. Although his loved ones couldn’t be with him constantly, they nevertheless gave him strength. “The only thing that kept me from giving up was my family,” Kaustubh stated. And he survived his ordeal, too.
Even after his chemo finished, though, Kaustubh still didn’t feel his usual self. The procedures left him with weight gain and chemo burns, for example. In addition, he worried about a recurrence of the cancer whenever he felt overly fatigued. “It’s difficult to get used to the new normal after chemotherapy,” Kaustubh wrote, “But I am still here, trying.”
Ed Semeniuk also went through chemotherapy, with his cycles to treat non-Hodgkin Lymphoma beginning in 2014. “The first dose threw my heart into atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia,” he recalled. “Before I even left the hospital on the first day, I felt exhausted and sick but was told that it was normal for chemo.”
Semeniuk also experienced hair loss, although in his case it affected his whole body. Only his eyelashes and eyebrows remained, but incredibly he saw the lighter side of the situation. “Came out of the shower once and my wife saw me and started giggling because I was hairless all over,” he recounted. “[She said], ‘You look like a giant baby!’”
There were other side-effects as well, such as the way Semeniuk’s steroid medication altered his sense of taste. “Food tasted horrible,” he explained. “The [steroid] made me ravenous, so after taking the pills I would sneak out of the house at night to have a second supper, usually at McDonald’s. If I wasn’t tasting it, then why not eat cheap crap?”
“I have many great memories, too,” Semeniuk continued. “Especially [of] the chemo nurses, the caring staff, and the heated blankets on chemo day.” Freelance writer Jeffrey Poehlmann also posted on Quora in 2016 about the chemotherapy he was going through at the time. Poehlmann was suffering from stage IV lung cancer.
“My biggest problem these days is fatigue (both physical and mental),” Poehlmann wrote. “And acne, though thankfully not on my face.” In the writer’s case, his side effects were clearly a source of irritation. “Sure, it can be depressing… everything tastes bitter [and] my feet are swollen,” he added.
Nonetheless, Poehlmann felt the pros far outweighed the cons. “But I actually do feel better than I did a year ago,” he concluded. “In fact, most of the time I feel pretty great. And I get to continue being a part of my daughter’s life, which is pretty darn cool.”
Quora wasn’t the only place to answer questions about chemotherapy, either – Reader’s Digest did, too. Sonny DeMarco, a grandmother from Rockford, Illinois, underwent both surgery and chemo to combat her spinal lymphoma. “I quickly learned that chemo is poison, killing everything in its path,” DeMarco recalled, “starting with my hair.”
With the intention of beating her disease to the punch, DeMarco visited a hairdresser who specialized in treating cancer patients. “I cried so hard she wanted to call an ambulance,” the grandmother said of her stylist. However, it wasn’t just being bald that bothered her. It was more about what the lost hair represented.
“It may sound trivial to some – after all, hair grows back – but it was such an obvious physical sign of what my body was going through,” DeMarco continued. Needless to say, hair loss wasn’t her only symptom, either. “The chemo also caused strange skin changes, mucous, and sores in my mouth so bad I could not eat,” she added.
“Then, close to the last treatment, I ended up in the hospital with zero white blood cells,” DeMarco explained. “The chemo poison killed so many good things along with the cancer, but it also worked. I feel very blessed to be cancer-free since 2016.”
“I had to go through one round of the most severe chemo you can get,” another cancer survivor, Britanny Long from Utah, wrote in Reader’s Digest. “It completely wiped out my bone marrow. But in the process, it also wiped out my taste buds. I realized that I had lost all taste for food.”
“And if I could taste anything, it had a metallic taste,” Long continued. “It took weeks before I enjoyed eating anything again. Going through chemo really changed my relationship with food.” In conclusion, then, if you’re facing chemotherapy you may be in for a tough fight. But it can help you win the war.
Zahara Heckscher echoed those sentiments with the most upvoted answer over at Quora. “Good timing,” she replied to the question about what chemotherapy is like. “As I type this answer, I’m sitting in the chemotherapy ward getting my chemo. Look at the smile. That’s how I feel when I get chemo, because it is kicking my cancer’s butt.”