Going through treatment for breast cancer is like going on a journey – it takes some planning, requires some decisions, and has a timeline. Before you embark on your journey through treatment, take time to prepare.
1. Get Out Of TownSet up a weekend getaway to some special place, and take time to rest and decompress. Receiving your breast cancer diagnosis and making treatment decisions has been stressful – now is the time to take a mental and emotional break from all that. You might spend time in spiritual reflection, attend a yoga retreat, or indulge yourself at a spa! Spend the time alone, or invite loved ones to come along with you. Make this some high-quality time for you. Once you begin treatment, you will be following a strict schedule of appointments, and travel may be restricted due to side effects such as neutropenia (low immune system). So don't run away from treatment, but do get out of town for a break!
2. Eat Comfort FoodsNow is the time to dine on your favorite foods – grandmother's pear preserves, your father's special meat loaf, that special tres leches cake that your neighbor makes. Eat the foods that have nostalgic fragrances, are highly spiced, or are usually saved for special times. Is there a café that is your special place? Take a loved one there and order your favorite meal. Treatments for breast cancer sometimes affect your senses of smell and taste, and reduce your appetite. Enjoy your most loved foods now, and stock up on good culinary memories!
3. Stock Your FreezerWhile you're making your comfort foods, put aside an extra batch of them in your freezer. Whip up healthy entrees, casseroles, savory soups, and wrap up some breads to serve with them. Be sure to seal food securely, to prevent freezer burn, and put labels and dates on each container. If you don't like to cook, visit the freezer section of your grocery store and load up on some dishes that will keep you going through the first two or three weeks of treatment. This way, if you want to spend more time recovering from treatments than cooking, you will always have enough food on hand that can be reheated and served.
4. Have Dental Work DoneTell your dentist that you will be having chemo, and then make an appointment for a dental exam two or more weeks before your first infusion. Be sure your dental health is up to date, before starting chemotherapy. If your mouth is very healthy before chemo, you'll have fewer or milder oral side effects. Have a regular cleaning, be current on your x-rays, and get any fillings or other maintenance done now. Ask for any special instructions on mouth care during chemotherapy. Even if you wear dentures, have your gums and jaws examined. Have your dentures adjusted, if they don't fit properly. Buy an extra-soft toothbrush and alcohol-free mouthwash.
5. Get Ahead Of Hair LossChemotherapy can cause the loss of your hair, but you can be ready – make plans for dealing with temporary baldness. What suits your situation, comfort level, style, and budget? If you plan to purchase wigs, hats, or scarves, do so before your first infusion. Hair may take as long as three weeks to start thinning, but when it does, you will be ready! If you have a local shop that caters to chemo patients, take a friend, have a tour of their products and try on different styles. Think about whether you want to go naturally bald when your hair takes a vacation, or if you want to shave it off. Making these decisions ahead of time gives you some space in which to process any emotions you may have about chemo-induced hair loss.
6. Find Yourself Some Comfy ClothingThere's no need to show up at treatments dressed for the runway. Buy some loose, comfortable clothing. Remember that you may need to undress partially for treatments, so choose quick-escape clothing that won't dislodge your wig (if you're wearing one). If you're going to have breast radiation, you may prefer to wear soft layers instead of bras. And speaking of bras, look into front-closing bras, in case fatigue or neuropathy makes reaching behind your back a chore. Pick out some comfortable shoes with a wide toe (for good circulation) and a good tread.
7. Line Up Chauffeurs And VisitorsOnce your treatment schedule is mapped out, you can decide whether or not you want to go it alone, or with a buddy. If you think you'd like to have someone drive for you, or just have a familiar person to visit with during treatment sessions, line up volunteers! Most clinics are happy to make room for an extra person, especially if it helps a patient pass the time. You may also want to schedule at-home visitors for those days when you are recovering from treatment. It's nice to have someone to come by and check in with you, or keep you company. Hint: choose people who are good cooks, and have cheerful dispositions.
8. Appoint Someone As Your AdvocateYour advocate, a family member or friend, should be a person who will go to appointments with you. An advocate may help you fill out paperwork, take notes, ask questions that you might forget to ask, and speak up for you if you're feeling unwell. A good advocate will also be able to guard you from unnecessary attention, screen phone calls, or discourage visits from negative, but well-meaning people. An extraordinary advocate may drive you to the hospital for surgery, and sleep in a chair by your bed so you will never be alone. Choose an advocate for their dependability, willingness to serve, and compassionate heart.
9. Elect Someone To Keep Friends And Family Up To DateHere's a job for the person in your life who is a good communicator – let this person be your press secretary. Discuss how much detail will be given out, and to whom, and how the news will be broadcast. If this person is web-savvy, ask them to make you a website to which readers may subscribe for updates (like CaringBridge), or to send out a weekly email to your chosen supporters. Perhaps another person would be in charge of a phone call chain, alerting others to your news and needs for meals, rides, visitors, or encouragement. This way, you don't have to tell your story over and over, and you can concentrate on recovery. Pick discreet people who have a good amount of respect for your privacy.
10. Understand Your Insurance CoverageBefore you have surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or any other therapies relating to your cancer diagnosis, call your insurance company and let them know what you're dealing with. Ask if your surgeons, anesthesiologists, doctors, therapists, hospitals, clinics, and medications are covered. Be sure you understand your deductible requirements, and how the fiscal year is reckoned. Find out if you or your clinic will be filing claims, and what the procedures are, so you can be reimbursed quickly. Don't skip treatments because of financial hardship – you can get help – but you may have to ask. Talk to the financial officers at your clinic if you have any other questions, or think you may need assistance.
Sources:Chemotherapy and Your Mouth. Pamphlet, PDF format. National Institutes of Health. Reprinted July 2008.
Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects: Hair Loss (Alopecia). National Cancer Institute. Posted: 11/24/2008.