Everyone’s journey with cancer is unique – along every step of the way – and many of those journeys involve chemotherapy. While we hate to see anyone undergo the rigors of chemo, we certainly know that sometimes it is the option that you and your family must choose. And that’s okay.
On the other hand, what we never want to see is someone stepping into chemo unprepared, unsupported, and unaware of ways to cope. Chemotherapy is always going to be incredibly difficult, but you don’t have to step into it with your eyes closed. Understand what it is, why it’s used, and what you MUST do if you’re taking chemo.
Some Background on Chemo
The development of chemotherapy began as early as the beginning of the 20th century, as scientists first developed the premise for chemotherapy, then identified chemicals that might work, then struggled to test it. It took nearly half a century and an accidental chemical warfare spill to begin widespread treatment.
When World War II troops were exposed to sulfur mustards, they later had decreased bone marrow and lymph node activity. This was passed along to chemotherapy researchers, who then modified the mustards and began to use them on lymphomas. (1)
Other breakthroughs occurred during WWII cancer treatment research, including the effects that folic acid and green leafy vegetables can have on cancer, but it was the chemical treatment of cancer – chemotherapy – that really took hold. There was a period of concern about side effects and the harshness of chemotherapy, but when researchers determined that even one leukemia cell could ultimately kill a mouse, the dire nature of cancer took hold and aggressive treatments ensued.
Cancer can be frightening. It’s life-changing and often life-threatening. The choice to undergo chemotherapy remains to this day for the same reasons. We want to stop the progression and rid the body of every last cell before it’s too late, and sometimes that means undergoing chemotherapy.
How to Cope with Chemo
There is nothing easy about having cancer, and chemotherapy isn’t an exception. Whether you’re already taking treatments or it’s in your future, you can prepare yourself to deal with chemo and make the most of a difficult time. Anyone who has been through chemo will have nuggets of wisdom to share, as well, but we’d like to offer these 7 things to do if and when you undergo chemo:
- Do your homework
- Cut out sugar
- Cut out dairy
- Go vegan
- Use essential oils
- Don’t lose hope
Let’s walk through each of these tools you can have at your disposal to help make your time during chemotherapy as effective and restorative as possible.
7 Suggestions If You’re Taking Chemo
1) Do your homework!
This could – should – be a given, but it’s completely understandable if you are reading this and just now realizing you have more to learn. In reality, we all have more to learn! A cancer diagnosis can leave you reeling and not in the best frame of mind for research. Still, it’s important to walk into a chemotherapy decision with your eyes wide open.
Have you discussed the pros and cons of chemotherapy or radiation with your oncologist? Not just listened to their spiel, but really walked through it with them? There are some side effects that you’ll almost certainly feel – from mild discomfort to real struggles – and there are some long-term side effects that may or may not be a problem for you. What are the benefits of the therapy for you, and do they outweigh these risks? WebMD recommends asking these questions of your oncologist if chemotherapy is on the table:
- Why are you recommending this therapy?
- What are the risks?
- Are there other ways to treat cancer?
- Where do I go for chemotherapy or hormone therapy?
- Is chemotherapy given through the vein or as a pill, and will I need anti-nausea medications?
- Will I be able to drive myself home after treatment, or do I need help?
- How long does the treatment last?
- What are the risks and side effects?
- Will my hair fall out? Will it grow back?
- What about premature menopause and infertility?
- What should I avoid during treatment? Should I change my diet or lifestyle? (2)
Once you have a good idea of what your chemotherapy treatment will entail, you can work with your oncologist, your own research, and potentially a natural health professional to develop a natural cancer protocol to go alongside your treatment. Choosing chemotherapy does not preclude natural health treatments – you don’t have to choose one or the other!
2) Cut out sugar
This is a simple step that can seem daunting but is well worth it. The first concern is one that all individuals with cancer should share, chemotherapy or no – the theory that sugar feeds cancer. A 2013 study highlighted this problem by evaluating over 250 Jamaican men based on diet and prostate cancer status. The men with high levels of refined sugars and refined carbs in their diets showed an increased risk for prostate cancer over other dietary patterns. (3) This study is not alone in its conclusions, and anyone with cancer would be wise to cut out sugar.
For chemotherapy patients, in particular, eliminating sugar from the diet comes with twofold reasoning: first, of course, is to stop feeding cancer, and second is to stop damaging your immune system.
Chemotherapy itself leaves you with a weakened immune system, and eating (or drinking!) sugar only makes it worse. A now-famous study conducted in the 1970s points to lower immune efficiency for several hours after a sugary drink is consumed. (4) Knowing that your body is already struggling first against cancer and then against chemotherapy, don’t add sugar or other dietary stress on top of it.
3) Cut out dairy
If you can cut out sugar, you can cut out dairy. Eliminated for multiple reasons, dairy is a good next-step elimination after sugar – making sure to read labels to avoid unintentional dairy consumption. As a side note, anything with a label you have to scrutinize is probably not the most nourishing food to choose anyway!
Dairy is often eliminated from neutropenia diets, as neutropenia is a side effect of cancer that keeps your body from fighting off infections and dairy can be a potential source of microbial contamination. It’s also eliminated for potential cancer-causing and cancer-feeding abilities. Researchers recently published an article in the International Journal of Cancer that draws connections between increased dairy intake and increased colon cancer and breast cancer risks, as well as between lactose intolerance and decreased risks. (5)
With nut-milk alternatives available – even to DIY – you can easily avoid dairy in a well-rounded, nutritious, and delicious diet. Do be wary of soy-laden replacements, however, to avoid the potential estrogenic properties of a processed soy product. Manufacturers love to market their foods to people with special diets, so be sure you are choosing real, whole foods as replacements and not more ultra-processed junk that will weigh your body down.
4) Go Vegan
Yes, this is a touch more radical, but you are in a radical phase of life! Your body is taking a beating from the inside out – it can handle some changes in the diet!
Now that you’ve eliminated dairy, going vegan is the next step, by eliminating meat and replacing it with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Without thought for a special diet, restrictions, or inclusions, we often slip into enjoying whatever is most accessible. Unfortunately, in our society, what’s most accessible is not the most beneficial. Our access to fast food and processed food over fresh, real foods has given us all of our macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) and plenty of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), but the sources leave something to be desired, and the skewed nutrient ratios, additives, and proportions are leading to chronic illness. (6)
Whether it’s the vigilance toward consuming plenty of plant-based foods, the inability to partake in most processed junk or the relief the body gets from all of the work it takes to metabolize meat, vegetarian diets are frequently connected with better health. From a 2015 statement by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:
Vegetarian diets are associated with a lower risk of ischemic heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some types of cancer; low-fat vegetarian diets, in combination with other healthy lifestyle factors, have been shown to be effective in the treatment of these diseases. (7)
Eliminating meat does your body a world of good long-term, and it will be much more gentle on your body during treatment times. Make sure you plan ahead to have plenty of healthy, varied foods accessible in order to stay well-nourished even when you aren’t feeling up to meal planning and cooking.
If ever there were a time to focus on self-care, this is it. The immune system is intertwined with stress response, and a stressed-out mind or body will not handle the rigors of chemotherapy well.
Intentional meditative time, prayer, and general relaxation techniques should be a priority in your everyday life, but even more so during chemotherapy. Finding a trusted counselor can help to relieve some stress and anxiety as well.
A thorough review of this subject was conducted in 2015, acknowledging the benefits that mindfulness and intentional stress relief have for cancer patients in particular. Markers of immune health and improved quality of life is common improvements that mindfulness can have for people with cancer. (8) As science learns exactly how it all works, we can be spending time in prayer and meditation and reaping the benefits!
6) Use essential oils
Many cancer protocols will include supplemental nutrients and herbs, and essential oils can join in the mix, as well. The “volatile oil” or essential oil of a plant is often a protective feature of the plant, attracting pollinators or warding off dangers. For us, essential oils can have protective effects as well, in differing ways.
The relaxation capabilities of essential oils have long been known and utilized, with many ways to enjoy them. Massages are standard relaxation therapy, but during chemotherapy, you may not feel up to it. Diffused and inhaled essential oils can provide stress relief and lift anxiety and depression symptoms.
They’re also often used as immune protectants – if only through simple cleaning sprays and antimicrobial diffusions! Keeping essential oils on hand as you go in and out of hospitals for treatments or while your immune system is down can help protect your body while your immune system is down.
Science is even uncovering ways that essential oils help to prevent cancer, though we have much to learn! Researchers summed it up well in a 2014 review when they said,
[Essential oil]-mediated therapy cannot be a substitute for standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy but can be used in combination with cancer therapy to decrease the side effects of the drugs. Hence, EOs can be used for improving the health of cancer patients and as a source of novel anticancer compounds. (9)
7) Don't lose hope!
You’ve heard it said, but last, in this case, is most certainly NOT least. As you read through natural cancer therapy options and the drawbacks of chemotherapy – as you sit through chemotherapy treatments – as you experience the side effects yourself – do not lose hope! This is a challenging time in your life, but it is not your life. It is only a season, and you are doing all you can to weather it well!
By taking the time to learn about your decisions, strengthen your body to withstand them, and take care of your heart and mind during this difficult time, you are accomplishing amazing things. Keep your chin up, keep your heart open, and keep your faith. You know what your body needs, and you are doing an excellent job making the most of your efforts. Don’t ever give up hope – this is only a season!