Tips for navigating chemotherapy/cancer treatment

My friend and mentor, Myrta, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. It was an upsetting blow to be sure. But the doctors are optimistic that Myrta will be able to beat it and that’s very comforting to hear. Optimism aside, she still has a long road of chemotherapy and radiation treatment ahead of her and that’ll be tough. Her treatment starts this Thursday and will be ongoing throughout the Spring, Summer and into the Fall.

I remember shortly after I had been diagnosed with leukemia a few years back, Myrta called me. “I hear you’re unconquerable,” she said over the phone in her usual inspiring and reassuring way. Those words filled me with amazing strength. Many of you will remember how “unconquerable” became my mantra and rallying cry. Now you know where that came from!

Myrta’s an incredible woman and I know her own unconquerable spirit will serve her well in this journey.

In situations like this I always feel helpless. But having gone through a lot of chemo and radiation myself, I hope that I can offer some insights from my own experience that might be helpful. Everybody’s experience is different but I hope there are some useful nuggets in the 10 tips I’ve listed below.

On top of being one of the kindest, most sincere and compassionate people I know, Myrta is also a very talented writer and has been blogging about her experience with breast cancer. Click here to check out her blog and be sure to leave some words of encouragement.

Tips for navigating cancer treatment

Visualize: In one of Myrta’s recent posts, she talks about how she pictures herself as a boxer getting ready for a big fight. It’s interesting because that was definitely the same imagery that I used while I was undergoing treatment. Visualization is a great technique and really helps focus your energy on a mental image. I’m a big Rocky fan, so I’d often picture myself like him in the ring against a big opponent. And like the Rocky films I knew that round after round of chemo I was going to take a beating. But like the Italian Stallion, I just needed to keep on swinging and I’d win in the end.

I also found it helpful to use less violent imagery. I’d visualize myself in the most tranquil and happy place I could conjure. For me it was at the end of a dock next to a cottage on a warm summer day. Just sitting there in the sun; completely healthy and at peace.

Get out of your head/distract yourself: Oh man, this was a big one for me. I have a WAY too active imagination and getting caught up in my thoughts can be very dangerous. If you find yourself brooding on things or letting your imagination run wild, it’s time to get out of your head. Call up a friend, watch some TV, go for a walk, do a crossword—a lot of time you can be your own worst enemy.

Stay off the internet: Another big one I learned the hard way. In my attempt to be as prepared as I could be, I spent a lot of time doing research online about my disease. BE CAREFUL! The internet is a minefield of misinformation and out-dated material. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to be as informed as possible (see the next tip). It just means, don’t get carried away, choose your websites wisely and remember that no two cases of cancer are the same and everybody’s experience is different.

Be your own advocate: My doctors and nurses were awesome while I was undergoing treatment. But the reality is that they’re very busy people with too many patients and as a result they may rush through explaining things to you or throw around terms that go over your head. You have to be your own advocate. Insist that they explain things if you don’t understand something. Bring a list of the questions you want to ask and make sure they take the time to answer all of them. And also remember: doctors aren’t mind readers. It’s up to you to bring to their attention how you’re feeling and the concerns you have.

Focus on the big picture: Keep your eye on the prize. It’s a long haul and you’ll need to be patient. Keep reminding yourself that it’s only temporary and don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal of restored health. It can be a tough slog but the reward is definitely worth it.

Laugh: I’m a firm believer that laughter is the best medicine. That, and heavy doses of methotrexate. It’s important to stay upbeat and enjoy the lighter side of life during treatment. Whether that’s reading the funnies, watching a comedy or downloading “footballs-to-the-crotch” videos off of YouTube, laughter will do the body good.

Set boundaries: I have a hard time saying no. But learning to say no is very important. People want to talk and visit because they care and want to be there for you. But you need to be okay with being selfish now and then when you’re not feeling up to company. Visitors are awesome but can also be exhausting and you need to stay well rested so your body can do its thing.

Journal/Share: This tip is related to the one about getting out of your head. A great way to process the jumble of thoughts ricocheting inside your skull is to talk them out or put them to paper. I’m terrible at sharing my thoughts and feelings. But putting them “out there” gives them form and allows you tackle issues more effectively.

Stay positive: Attitude is everything. Surround yourself with positive people and avoid the negative ones. Read biographies about people who inspire you. Keep positive quotes posted around the house. Keep a gratitude journal and remind yourself of all the wonderful little things going on in your life.

Be disciplined: There were a lot of times during treatment when I would have preferred to just stay in bed. The chemo made me extremely fatigued. But it’s important to be disciplined about doing your part in getting healthy. This includes things like taking your medication on time, drinking plenty of fluids even if you don’t feel particularly thirsty, trying to eat decent amounts of food to keep your strength up, doing light exercise if your doctor recommends it and keeping all your appointments.

These things worked great for me. As I said though, everyone is different and will have their own ways of dealing with difficult situations.

So here’s to my unconquerable friend, Myrta. I’m right here in your corner and know that you’re going to do great!


Funny stories. Good advice. Josh Martin is the author of the book “Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments”. Click here to learn more and to purchase a copy.

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2 Responses to Tips for navigating chemotherapy/cancer treatment

  1. Luke Henshaw says:

    Thank-you Josh for your encouraging perspective on living with cancer. It is a disease that has become an epidemic in our society and effects everyone in one way or another.

    As you know, my mother fought ovarian cancer for two years before it took her young life. She was just 54 years old when she died.

    I agree with all of your comments and encourage those going through similar experiences to try and stay positive in their own fight. Try to surround yourself with the people who love you the most. Cancer isn’t something you should fight alone.

    I strongly believe in the power of prayer and have seen many miracles in my Mom’s life because of it. If you’re not a religious person, maybe religion or spirituality is something you may want to draw strength from in you fight.

    Never give up and learn to let family and friends help you when you need it. Above all, be sure to do the things in life you really want to. Experiences last a lifetime and can create many good memories to help you through the hard times. Truly love and allow others to love you in return, the greatest of all human needs.

    • Hi Luke,
      Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing a bit about your personal story. You and your family have been through a lot. I admire your perspective and attitude and your encouragement to make the most from life.

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