Chemotherapy While Single

Rebecca is a youthful and athletic 57. Although she’s been single for a while, she didn’t think much about it until last spring when she got the unwelcome news that she had Stage 3 breast cancer and would have to endure a five month course of chemotherapy. She wondered, “Am I going to be able to do this by myself?”

There are 650,000 people receiving chemotherapy as outpatients in the United States per year. About 42 percent of adults aged 20 and older, are not married at the time of their cancer diagnoses. There are no statistics about how many people are living alone while getting chemo, but one of them is my friend Rebecca.

While she has a lot of support from friends, Rebecca’s nearest family lives two thousand miles away. She says she can’t imagine adding complications to an already challenging treatment course, so she’s even more vigilant about taking care of her whole self during chemo. She says,

Flowers for chemotherapy patients

Living alone with cancer has motivated me to focus on self-care so I can better manage my emotional and physical well-being. While I’m lucky to have a strong support system, indulging myself from time to time also helps, like getting a facial or buying fresh flowers for my apartment. These are small things, but they give me confidence that I will pull through this in one piece.

Every chemotherapy regimen has its own miseries, but some side effects are common enough to be thought of as the “usual suspects” –– nausea, hair loss, runny noses and nosebleeds, neuropathy, fatigue, and low immunity. It’s true that one person may have an easy go with a drug combination while another may find the exact same drugs and doses unbearable. Nevertheless, Rebecca has developed a routine that has kept her out of trouble so far.

Practical Ways to Make Chemotherapy Less of a Bear

  • Nausea: Apart from the raft of nausea meds commonly prescribed for chemotherapy, Rebecca has found that:
    • Sea Bands worn on the wrist for motion sickness help her feel less nauseous. (I don’t know the mechanism of action by which wrist bands work, but one study showed they work whether or not patients expected them to. –JB)
    • Ginger Drops, namely, Tummy Brand. (Not a formal endorsement, but Rebecca’s favorite!)
  • Nail Care: Manicures at salons are mostly forbidden during chemo, but Rebecca has found ways around that. Here are her suggestions:
    • Manicure Set – A Zwilling/J.A. Henckels set would be a very nice (albeit expensive), gift for someone starting chemo.
    • Nail polishDr.’s Remedy Hydration Moisture Treatment (Clear). There are other colors, but some patients may not be able to use color. I’ve learned the hard way that Beau’s lines can appear during chemo and can be quite painful! Along with discoloration, brittleness, etc., there are many nail side effects, keeping nails moisturized helps.
    • Cuticle oil helps keep nails moisturized as well. (Note: keeping the nails and cuticles moisturized may also prevent cracks and fissures from opening up and causing infection. -JB)
  • Nasal Care: A side effect of chemo that doesn’t get much attention is its effect on the nasal mucous membranes. Bloody noses were an unpleasant surprise for Rebecca. She has found ways to cope:
    • Saline solution 3 times per day to keep nasal passages moisturized and prevent bloody noses. Ocean brand or an equivalent is recommended
    • Afrin was recommended by an otolaryngologist (ENT) as a remedy for a bloody nose. See techniques here.
    • Aquaphor can be applied just inside the nasal passages twice a day to help retain moisture.
    • Handkerchiefs and lots of them! Kleenex is too harsh and chemicals in it may be irritating.  A set of handkerchiefs is another great gift idea for someone on chemotherapy.
  • Chemo Bag – Rebecca has one ready to go so she doesn‘t have to pack her things over again every week. Here’s what’s in it:
    • Large wool scarf/shawl (While you get warm blankets during chemo, an extra comfy wrap around your shoulders helps.)
    • Socks
    • Noise reducingear buds (Rebecca says these have made her time at the infusion center remarkably more relaxing.)
    • Charger for devices
    • Handkerchief — always have one or two on hand!
    • Tea
    • Snacks
    • Water bottle
    • Lip balm
  • Hair Loss Rebecca invested in a couple of wigs, but she says her everyday headwear is more often hand-knit hats scarf/hats by FocusCare when she goes to bed at night: “The material is soft, but keeps your bald head warm!”
  • Other
    • Purse size hand sanitizer
    • Pill box with daily AM/PM compartments (Rebecca: “Once chemo brain kicked in, I swear I couldn’t remember what I took!”)

Takes Commitment, Delivers Pay-Offs

Exercise

A lifelong athlete, Rebecca did not want to give up exercise when she started her treatment, so she pledged that she would walk every day.

“I am a swimmer, and before my diagnosis, I was swimming five to six days a week in the San Francisco bay, so exercise is part of my identity, I just needed to find a new way to do it once treatment began.”

Rebecca is also participating in an exercise class specifically designed for people who are living with cancer. The class is designed to counteract muscle atrophy. She reports, “My muscles feel worked after class, which is great, but I love being in the room with all these other people who are going through what I am going through.”

In fact, getting regular exercise during cancer treatment has been shown to improve quality of life and well-being, so Rebecca will drag herself out of bed to get it in if she has to.

Nutrition

“I want to eat all organic now”

Rebecca was given The Cancer Fighting Kitchen by a friend, and now it’s her cooking bible. One recipe in it, “The Magic Mineral Broth,” has been a mainstay for her. It’s made with root vegetables and kombu. It’s high in magnesium, potassium and sodium. While there is no evidence that any specific diet can cure cancer, a nutritionally whole eating plan during chemo can reduce side effects.

Professional Emotional and Mental Health Support During Chemotherapy

Patients facing serious cancer, especially those who are living alone, should consider finding a support group soon after diagnosis.  Rebecca advises lining one up as soon as possible:

While I’m lucky to have friends and family support, I realized I needed a therapist or support group too. It was harder to find than I expected. Most support groups are set up for people with advanced/stage 4 cancer, but that’s not me.

I’m also on the wait list at my treatment center for individual counseling with a psychologist or psychiatrist, and the wait is 6 to 8 weeks! Even though I’m strong, let’s face it, breast cancer isn’t easy go through alone.

Update: Rebecca got into a support group and says “It’s everything I was looking for. Those people know everything about breast cancer. One woman has been in the group for a decade!”

Support Boils Down to Logistics

Rebecca is about to start a new phase of chemotherapy and will be contemplating surgery after that. She worries not only about how to cope with cancer therapy but also about all the people who want to help. She says,

“I love all the support I’m getting, but it takes a lot of work to coordinate everyone’s offers of help. I’m worried that as time goes on, I may not have the energy to keep doing it. At the end of the day, the only support I’m missing is having someone to manage my support system!”

Rebecca and I talked about using one of the many Care Giving Support Apps and Web-Based Platforms to schedule her visits and meal deliveries. These sites also offer a way to update friends and family all at once, avoiding the need to answer dozens of “How are you doing?” emails. Here is a list of the best ones I’ve found. (I have no affiliation with any of them.)

  1. Lotsa Helping Hands
  2. Caring Bridge
  3. Care Calendar
  4. LivingWith (This app is affiliated with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.)

Life Can Move Forward During Chemotherapy

Finally, chemotherapy doesn’t mean someone has to put their life completely on hold. Rebecca says that paring down her responsibilities at work and being forced to be less physically active has given her more time for her favorite hobby: knitting.

The photo shown here is a sweater Rebecca knitted over the past two months, using a pattern from a knitting designer she admires, Julie Weisenberger of CocoKnits. Picking up the sweater to show me its seamless design, Rebecca laughed and said,

“I wonder if I’d have as much time for knitting if I didn’t live alone?”

Rebecca's sweater knit during chemotherapy

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