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February 5, 2001

Some Thoughts on Getting Through It and Feeling Better:
Chemotherapy Thoughts From Women Undergoing Treatment for Breast Cancer
With the Hope That Our Experience Might Be of Use to You

Linda Gustafson

During 1998, there was a particularly feisty and active group of women breast cancer patients who met at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, CA. From varied backgrounds with varying diagnoses, experiences - treatments and lifestyles, these women found comfort in sharing the various things that worked for them when undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Throughout treatment, many of these women focused on the overall body mind spirit connection, as well as dealing with the specific treatment and side effects that had to be addressed that day.

This section addresses chemotherapy. For some, the chemotherapy was used to shrink the tumor and was undergone prior to surgery, for others it was after surgery. Although the side effects experienced during chemotherapy varied , many women found it particularly helpful and in some cases comforting to know that others were experiencing similar side effects - and things that others had done to address them.

Many of the women in the group who were undergoing chemotherapy were also being seen by practitioners of acupuncture and herbalists or homeopaths who were familiar with Western medicine treatment of breast cancer, in particular various types of chemotherapy.

Things that worked and some side effects experienced and how addressed:
Fluids. All agreed that use of fluids was particularly important during chemotherapy. Types of fluids people found helpful (as much as 12 glasses a day):
water (with small amount of unfiltered no sugar added cranberry juice)
green tea
barley tea
herbal infusions (e.g., violet leaf/nettles/red clover);

Yogurt: Also, small amounts of natural (organic if possible) yogurt throughout the day, and night when awakened. Seems to help digestive tract.

need to be sure that you are not taking something that is counterindicated by other drugs/supplements you may be taking. Some women found helpful, chrysanthemum flower tea (from herb store) taken in teaspoon size tea diffuser about 1-1/2 hour before bed; also Schizandra Dreams (a Kava Kava dietary supplement, Chinese Traditional Formulas - distributed by Health Concerns in Oakland, CA).

For some women, the various combinations of Zofran and Ativan, Decadron and Compazine largely controlled nausea when combined with acupuncture/herbalist/homeopathic support, and the eating of small amounts of yogurt and other foods which were tolerated. Some women did not tolerate well the anti-nausea medication or the herbs. Some women tolerated the herbs when they were put in capsules. Some women found use of marijuana the only means of effectively controlling nausea during this time.

For colds/nasal discharge:
in addition to the chicken soup remedies, some folks found helpful:
gingerroot tea;
liquid echinacea- couple of capfuls with warm water; and zinc & propolis lozenge. (Echinacea and zinc logenges available at Trader Joe's.)

Mouth sores: many found it best to address this area proactively, since they are particularly irritating when one they become developed. Some methods shared for addressing include: use of
salt with hot water
baking soda when brushing and gently flossing teeth
mixture of 3% hydrogen peroxide and water (50/50)
herbal gargle from herbalist
gargle from medical oncologist; and
slippery elm lozenges - very gentle. (Slippery elm lozenges are also supposed to be helpful with nausea and throat dryness.)

Rectal /anal discomfort:
apply witch hazel astringent (86%, alcohol 14%) to alleviate symptoms; also use of comfrey ointment (Herbal Savvy's comfrey-aloe vera from Country Comfort at Whole Foods).

For immune system, including maintaining white blood cell counts . Many women found helpful the mung bean soup and bone marrow soup, especially in weeks 2 and 3 of a 21-day chemotherapy cycle.

Hair loss.
Many women who anticipated hair loss, had their hair cut progressively shorter before their second chemotherapy treatment in the case of AC (Adriamycin/Cytoxan). For some women, the inch cut was favored. Many women appreciated the American Cancer Society's Look Good Feel Better session. In the Bay Area, many women found Chris Rupee of A Lady's Touch in Oakland particularly compassionate and willing to assemble new looks. Additionally, in the Berkeley area there are a number of hair salons cooperating to provide complimentary haircuts for women undergoing treatment under the Welcome Back program.
Wigs. Many women wore wigs during some part of their treatment or post-treatment. (Hair may be very short even 3-4 months after last chemotherapy session.) But some women find that their former hair color and texture no longer reflect who they area and find a new, more comfortable look with various combinations of scarves, hats, turbans - larger earrings - and their emerging new shorter hair styles.

Skin care.
In addition to use of sunblock for skin and lips, moisturizer, many women who did not regularly use makeup found it helpful when there was loss of eyebrows and eyelashes. Look Good Feel Better addresses some of these concerns. Some women found helpful a hydrating body tonic for face and powder used cosmetically by plastic surgeons underneath the eyes and on eyelids to obscure dark circles which sometimes occur with chemotherapy.

The Hot Flash!
For many younger (premenopausal) women, another rude awakening during chemotherapy is the onslaught of night sweats and hot flashes. Use of layered natural fabric clothing (cotton, silk) - along with removable hat - help. The acupuncturist/herbalist or homeopath can help address. Many women found regular incorporation of soy products particularly helpful, including tofu, miso, edame (TJs frozen food section or Japanese market), soy nuts, soy powder and soy milk. There is a need to take a look at varying protein content.

Other Supplements:
some (and in some cases many) women took the following during chemotherapy,
multivitamin and mineral supplement;
anti-oxidant (A,C,E, selenium);
coenzyme Q-10 (50 mg, 90 capsules avail at TJs), best absorbed w/oil such as Vit E cap or olive oil - protects heart against damage from Adriamycin and anecdotal evidence that may help to regress breast tumors;
milk thistle extract (for liver);
mushroom immune liquid extract or tablets (e.g., Maitake D fraction; Maitake mushroom extract).

Herbal infusions:
some women took herbal infusions to help meet their daily fluid requirements and get trace minerals. One combination worked out was equal parts (about 2 tablespoons each) of violet leaf, red clover, and nettles. To simplify the preparation (and disposal of herbs afterwards), a glass-type teapot with a tea infuser in middle (or a French coffee press) was used. Boiling water was poured in and the herbs were steeped overnight. (see Susun Weed, Breast Cancer Breast Health: The Wise Woman Way. Susun Weed suggests they be drunk the next day as they lose their beneficial properties.

Fatigue and depression:
during chemotherapy, it is especially important for a woman to be able to rest. Many women in particular recognized the importance of the mind, body and spirit connection and its impact on their immune system. Women chose to do different things, including engaging on appropriate level in exercise that they enjoyed, being with friends and family they enjoyed, sleeping, resting, listening to music, reading, eliminating as many shoulds from their lives as they could - focusing where possible on things that involved their health and treatment.

For depression, some women recommend:
Mind, Body and Spirit: things some women particularly enjoyed include: audio or video cassettes or instructor or self-directed yoga; meditation; art therapy such as mandalas; guided visualization; ChiGung or TaiChi; church, synagogue or other spiritual services; getting together with family, friends or members of a support group.

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