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How Do People Cope With Chemo?

Cancer patients share strategies to overcome the emotional and physical challenges of chemotherapy.

Janice Kleinschmidt Health & Wellness

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Amber Stay’s mind went blank when asked for her phone number. Another time, in the midst of relating an experience, she forgot what she was saying. In the latter instance, she was among cancer patients who assured her that brain fog was normal during chemotherapy treatment.

“It helps to connect with people going through similar things,” says the La Quinta resident, who took advantage of multiple services — including support group and meditation sessions — provided by Comprehensive Cancer Center in Palm Springs.

Almost 40 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with the invasive disease during their lifetimes, according to National Cancer Institute projections, and doctors recommend chemotherapy in more than half of cancer diagnoses.

We asked local cancer patients to share their most effective coping strategies.

Stay began a journal on day one.

“Looking back at entries helped me stay positive,” she says, alluding to a record of good days that followed bad ones. Nothing could completely stave off sadness. “It’s OK to cry. Release and build back up again.” She also bought herself a bracelet with a calming charm that reads “Just breathe.”

Cynthia Johnson decided there was nothing wrong in “not overextending” herself.

“I didn’t beat myself up for not walking every day just because someone else said I should,” the Palm Springs resident says. “I allowed myself to rest.”

In addition to resting and sleeping, Sarah Oates, a Comprehensive Cancer Center patient living in Idyllwild, meditated, bathed in baking soda and Epsom salts to dispel toxins, consumed “a ton of water,” followed a BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast), and drank smoothies for nutrition when she had no appetite for food.

My hair was going to fall out anyway. Shaving my head made me feel cleaner and healthier ... and gave me control.”

amber stay

Noting that she first consulted her doctor, Oates says, “One thing I found very helpful was Enterade [an amino acid-based electrolyte beverage developed by oncologists and gastroenterologists to reduce GI side effects of chemo, radiation and immunotherapy].”

As much as chemo patients need support from family and friends, they also need breathing room.

“People want to ‘fix’ you. They come at you [with advice] or ask, ‘Why are you doing that?’ ” reports Stay, who came up with a response after consulting Comprehensive Cancer Center psychologist Anita Chatigny: “Thank you for your advice. I know it comes from a place of love. But I have this handled with my therapist and doctor.”

Chatigny also advised Stay to appoint a family spokesperson to relay the message to others.

“Find a way to empower yourself,” Chatigny suggests. “Create your control.”

Stay did that when she and her family made shaving her head a family event.

“My hair was going to fall out anyway,” she says. “Shaving my head made me feel cleaner and healthier than looking in the mirror at straggly hair and gave me control over something that I otherwise couldn’t control.”