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The Truth About My Experience With Chemotherapy

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As I’m sure much of the world has heard of chemotherapy, I was also aware of what chemo is when I was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. I had seen the movies, heard the horror stories — it’s something I didn’t want to experience. But after my diagnosis, I knew that it was a route I was going to have to take. In fact, my doctors prepared me that I’ll most likely need to go through chemo multiple times in my life due to the fact that my cancer is incurable and will always come back. But what actually goes through my brain during a chemo appointment? You might not want to know.

At my first chemotherapy appointment, I wasn’t expecting such a reality check. I’d been diagnosed with cancer for four weeks at that point, but I don’t think it really hit me until that moment. I have cancer. And it’s a type of cancer I’ll need to deal with my entire life. The realization hit me like a truck.

On chemo days, I wake up with immense dread. I don’t like to dwell on the fact that I have cancer, so my coping skill is to pretend I don’t. But when chemo appointments arrive, I have to face it.

When I arrive at the cancer center, I’m instantly anxious. I know what’s coming. And even though the chemo appointment itself is bearable, in my mind it’s the worst thing in the world.

I remember one time I was walking in with my mom and she made a comment about how nice the cancer center was. At the time, it enraged me. It’s not nice. The cancer center is probably the place I hate most in the world. It’s where I went from being a normal 26-year-old to getting a lifelong diagnosis of cancer. Rationally, I know it’s really nice for a cancer center, but it’s not nice for me.

Usually, I’m able to hold myself together until I need to get my blood drawn. Then, it depends how that goes on when I begin crying. I don’t have a port, so the nurses have to find a good vein each time, and if they get the IV in the first time, I’m a little more optimistic about how my day will go. But on the days where it takes three, four, or even five times with veins being blown and my whole arm turning blue, it’s a lot harder to cope with.

There’s roughly a 50/50 chance that I’ll have a full-blown panic attack while waiting for the actual chemo to start. I need to bring my anxiety medications every time because I know I may lose all control if I don’t have them. I don’t consider myself a “warrior.” I’m not the person in the cancer center that’s taking pictures with a bubbly smile talking about how they’re going to “beat this thing.” I’m usually the one on the verge of tears.

However, since every other patient there seems so happy-go-lucky, I feel like I can’t cry in front of nurses and doctors, which often leaves me trying to hide my tears. I’ll get asked, “Are you OK?” and want to snap at whoever dares to ask the question because obviously, I am not OK. I am the furthest thing from OK in those moments. If I was OK, I wouldn’t be getting chemo.

Every session, multiple times, I’ll have these fantasies of ripping my IV out and just running away as fast as I can. I want to dig my head in the ground and pretend I don’t have this illness. I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t feel I’m strong enough and genuinely don’t understand why this is happening to me.

And I wish I could be sunshine and rainbows about it, spewing on and on about how it gets easier and it’s not that bad, but unfortunately, for me, that’s just not true. I get more used to it, sure, but it’s still just as traumatic. The chemo, the side effects, the symptoms from cancer — everything is traumatizing. I often wish this never happened to me and question what I did to deserve it.

I try not to dwell on that. I try to distract myself on normal days because I rationally know that all of this was by chance and I didn’t do anything to cause it. But when I’m in that cancer center, everything changes. I lose that rationality and begin to go down the rabbit hole of unhelpful questions.

“Why me?”

“Why couldn’t I have dealt with this later in life — why did I have to get diagnosed at 26? Why can’t I just enjoy what are supposed to be the best years of my life?”

“How can I make this go away?”

“What did I do to deserve this kind of karma?”

There’s never an answer. It’s all anxiety and depression talking. But for some reason, I can never pull myself out of the rabbit hole there. To me, the cancer center is this wretched place where all of the bad thoughts come out. Even though my prognosis is good, I can’t help but go down that dark road every time.

And I know I’ll beat it, just like all those people who smile for pictures instead of crying. I’m not going to die. But knowing that doesn’t make it any better.

So, if you were looking for an article that gave you hope or inspiration, I’m sorry this wasn’t it. I’m just not there yet. Maybe one day I will be, but right now, whenever I get chemo, all of the positivity deserts me.

To everyone else fighting, I wish you well. And if you have any insight on how to put on that happy face and forget how awful chemo is, let me know. Otherwise, we’ll get through this together.

Getty image by Ridofranz.

Originally published: October 22, 2021
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