Chemotherapy’s Bad Name

By Elaine Jesmer

Chemotherapy. The word brings people’s worst fears to life. But worse than any of the symptoms is the fact that some people refuse treatment altogether, choosing almost certain death as a result. My oncologist knows of women who would actually rather die than lose their hair. It makes me want to scream, “No, wait! It grows back! You get to wear cute wigs! What’s the big deal?”

It’s sheer fear that drives choices like this. Trouble is, like politics, those people haven’t heard the whole story. And not enough doctors or adjunctive caregivers have told them it hardly ever happens the way they think it will, or that no two people experience the same chemo drugs in the same way.

Chemotherapy — whether as treatment for cancer, to keep transplant patients from rejecting organs, or as a remedy for a surprising number of other diseases or conditions, including multiple sclerosis — isn’t the Darth Vader-like monster in the medicine cabinet anymore. It’s a kinder, gentler chemotherapy these days.

That’s partly because better drugs have been developed to subdue the side effects. And it’s also because it’s easier to micro-manage those maladies because there are so many more effective drugs available today, making it more likely some combination will work.

Oncologists now consider cancer, the disease most associated with chemo, to be a chronic disease. That means if you stick with the program, you’re likely to live a normal life – perhaps with an occasional pit stop in the chemo chair.

Of course, there’s a downside. Yet today’s chemo, across the board, is still the best option.

Granted, it’s hard to watch someone you love become too weak to walk to the bathroom without help. During their journey through Chemoland, most patients do indeed experience one or more side effects including the notorious nausea, fatigue, hair loss, numb hands and feet — yada, yada, yada. But patients need assurance they’ll get through it, the vast majority with relative ease.

There’s little information about chemotherapy available for people who are either taking it for a short time, living with it for the rest of their lives, or living with the side effects long after treatment is finished. There should be more, and it should focus on chemotherapy, not the disease it’s treating.

Chemotherapy has its own environment, with most of the same side effects showing up across the spectrum of treatment. It’s a rapidly changing environment, with more drugs targeting and killing or suppressing specific cells, leaving healthy cells alone. The chemo universe supports whole industries that create ways and means to improve the lives of people living with chemotherapy. With all that, why is it so hard to find out how to get through it?

It could be that all chemotherapy needs is a “Chemo-babe” and a good marketing campaign, to get around the “ick” factor. Maybe then, comprehensive information about chemo would spread into the world, encouraging patients to embrace their protocol as the means to cure, not kill them.

Yes, chemo is harsh. Finding out you have a disease that requires chemotherapy is bad enough, so why should the cure be more painful than the disease?

That’s not really what matters. Staying alive, living in a way most resembling the life you had before you got whatever you got, is what chemo patients’ priorities should be.

When Chemoland is new territory, you can’t know enough to ask about options. But at your disposal are thousands of support groups of all kinds, offering relevant information for chemo patients. Fellow patients are a terrific resource, as is anyone who’s been through it. They survived chemo, and so will you.

Like most people, you’ll probably find a way to integrate chemotherapy into your life, or you’ll finish treatment and conclude it wasn’t as bad as you expected. Either way, you’ll be taking your life back. And if you ever require chemo again, you won’t be as fearful because this time you know it’s what you have to do to save your life.

Chemotherapy has a bad name, but it easily beats the alternative. That’s what I thought every time I sat in that industrial strength La-Z-Boy in the treatment room and watched the needle go into my arm.

Elaine Jesmer, a marketing consultant who lives in Los Angeles, wrote a book called ” ‘I’m Hot! . . . and I’m Bald!’: Chemotherapy for Winners”, available at Amazon and on Kindle. Her website, www.elainejesmer.com, offers practical ways of handling the side effects of chemo, as well as resources to help with the challenges of treatment..

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