When Your Wife has Breast Cancer You are the Primary Caregiver Part II Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy: On Her Own Terms


              The home health worker stopped by our house on the fourth day after we came home from the hospital. She was very nice and helpful. She understood my concerns and listened. She reassured me that I was doing everything correctly, and my wife was healing nicely. My wife’s pain was starting to decrease along with a slowing of the blood draining from the wound. With in two weeks the drains were out; the chemo treatments began again. 


              Do to a scheduling conflict the surgery could not be done for two month. My wife’s oncologist suggested that she began chemo before the surgery. It was the first of eight treatments, one chemo treatment a month for eight months. After that first round of chemo, her hair began to fall out. I will never forget that day. It was a week after that first chemo treatment she was in the bathroom and she screamed. I thought she had fallen in the shower. I went running into the bathroom; she was standing there crying with clumps of hair in hands. I hugged her and said, “It’s going to be all right.” All she could do was cry into my shoulder.


              I called my sister to tell her what had happened; she came right over. My sister took one look at my wife then looked at me and said; “Where is the check book? We’re going shopping for wigs.” 


Three hours later they were back with two wigs and a surprise. My wife had shaved off all her hair. I looked at her with an expression of what is going on? She just smiled and said; “It’s going to be on my terms not the chemo’s terms.”


                        Chemotherapy treatments kill cancer cells, but the treatment can also kill healthy cells and tissue. The side affects are unbearable; nausea, diarrhea, cold sweats, fever, unable to sit comfortably in a chair or lay comfortably in bed, loss of taste, loss of smell, loss of all body hair, and open sores in the mouth making it impossible to eat anything even slightly spicy those are the common side effects, but each person is different. How extensive the side affects are depends on the person and the type of chemo treatment being administered.  

Wear the Pink Ribbon

One Treatment A Month for The Next Eight Months

When the person you love is going through Chemo, you go through your own emotion hell. My hell was the fact that, I could not stop her pain, I could sleep, for a few hours, while she could not sleep at all, I could taste food while she could barely keep down scrambled eggs, I could get up an take care of myself while she was totally dependant on me, during those days immediately following treatment. I felt guilty because I was not going through what she was going through. I was the one that was encouraging her, begging her, forcing her to continue the treatments. I just kept telling myself that ‘my hell was nothing compared to what she was going through.”

As I mentioned before, there were eight treatments over an eight-month period. The oncologist gave all his patients chemo treatments on Thursdays. The reasoning for Thursday treatments was that if the patient worked he/she could usually recover enough from the treatment to go back to work on Monday. I would take Thursday and Friday off from work so I could accompany my wife to the chemo treatment and stay home on Friday to take care of her. Those three days after chemo were the roughest on her.

The first treatment was difficult. I had not prepared enough. The chemo gave my wife an extreme case of nausea. The doctor prescribed anti nausea medication, but it did little to relieve the nausea during the three days after treatment. She could not sit, she could stand, nor could she lie down with even a modicum of comfort. She was able to sit on the couch with her feet up, and her back prop up with multiple pillows. This position did not alleviate the side affects, but it did help relieve some of her discomfort. The next day I went out and bought a recliner. This type of chair, along with the anti nausea medication, seemed to relieve the stomach pains and the acid reflux just enough to allow my wife to doze off for a few minutes at a time. She never really was able to get a good night sleep for that first week after each chemo treatment.

Our Immune System

This picture was down loaded from Medline Plus. See the link below for more information
This picture was down loaded from Medline Plus. See the link below for more information

Routine is What Gets You Through It

Our routine was established fairly quickly. After the treatment,  My wife would get into her pajamas then try to get as comfortable as possible. I would make supper and prepare for the night ahead. In the beginning, the treatments took about six hours before the full effects of the chemo hit her. By the fourth month, the side affects came with in an hour after each  treatment. This is where it would get rough for both of us. You understand what’s happening, but your mind has not accepted the change yet. You are on edge and tired, so you are not thinking straight. What would be cause for friction in normal times is now normal behavior due to these treatments. As the caregiver, it is imperative that you understand this.

Unlike the flu or recovering from surgery, chemo, in the beginning, has no outward signs except for hair loss and discomfort in some people. So your mindset is one of ‘Ok it might not be that bad.’ However, this is deceiving. Unless you have gone through chemo, you can’t understand the changes that are happening. One minute she was hungry and wanted something to eat, but after two or three fork fulls of scrambled eggs she was full. She need another pillow to get comfortable. It worked for a few minutes. However; she need to readjust her position because the new position has become intolerably uncomfortable.

As a caregiver, you must be prepared to handle this. I don’t know how many plates of scrambled eggs were made during theses treatment, but I do know at least three quarters of those plates went uneaten. I added pillows and subtracted pillows, I readjusted the recliner until the handle almost came off. Dozens of glasses of diet coke were poured only to have a sip taken from the glass and then left untouched for hours. A fresh drink was poured, to replace the watery, warm, flat drink, another sip was taken then the drink would sit untouched until it was replaced.

I wanted to make her as comfortable as possible, but no matter what I did, it just wasn’t enough to alleviate her pain. The feeling of helplessness and uselessness has a powerful effect on a person. No matter what you do, you can’t take away the pain. You can only sit there and watch the person you love, who you would die for, go through hell. You are powerless to help her. All you can do is be there for her and make her as comfortable as you possibly can. It was the routine that we had that helped us get through this period.

My wife realizing what she could expect, and I realizing what was required of me; helped us to prepare for each chemo treatment. With that mind set, plus the research on the type of chemo treatments she was receiving, she was able to get through those eight months. It wasn’t easy but she got through it.

As with any husband and wife, you each have a normal routine that you do every day. The more of that routine that you can stick to the more beneficial it will be mentally to both of you. One thing my wife did every night during the chemo treatments, no matter how sick she was, was to set up the coffee for the next morning. The reason behind it, if she could do that simple routine then she felt she was doing ok and she would be ok.

A Patient Undergoing Chemo Treatment

This is not my wife. This picture comes from wikipedia a place to start your research on chemo
This is not my wife. This picture comes from wikipedia a place to start your research on chemo

Chemo Brain

Besides the nausea and the physical pain, there were other side affects that caused emotional and physical discomfort. Chemo brain, night sweats, fever, chills, and the loss of taste. All of these side affects took a toll on my wife and myself.

Chemo brain is not a medical term. That is the term I used to describe my wife’s temporary short- term memory loss. She would do something, or I would tell her something, and she would for get what she did or what I told her with in an hour or so. This made for some interesting moments. We can now look back on those moments and laugh. At the time; however, it was scary to say the least.

Our concern had been would this memory lost be permanent? The oncologist was very helpful and explained that this is a common side affect in chemo patients, and once the chemo treatments were completed my wife’s short term memory loss would stop and she would be back to normal. He did caution us that she should not sign any legal documents such as; car loans, purchase and sales agreements, credit car applications, or any type of legally binding contract. The legal profession does not recognize chemo brain as a legitimate defense to the formation of a contract. Go figure. It never got to the point were she could not be left alone or her cognitive functions were impaired. She just simple forgot the little things.


The Other Side Affects


Two common side affects of chemo are fever and chills. They go together like bacon and eggs. The best thing to do is to keep blankets and cool wash clothes on hand, especially at night. For about a week after each chemo treatment my wife would begin a cycle of a rising fever followed by night sweats then chills. This would happen at anytime during the day. I would get a cool washcloth and lay it on her forehead. About fifteen minutes later, I would need to get another cool washcloth. I would repeat this process until her fever broke and she started sweating. After the sweating came the chills, I would pile blanks on her until she was warm. This cycle continued for the first week after each chemo treatment. By the second week the side affects would start to subside until she was ready for her next chemo treatment four weeks later.


The loss of taste is very common in chemo patients. My wife loss her sense of taste almost immediately, but in a way this is a blessing in disguise. The chemo caused open sores to develop in her mouth so anything spicy would cause a burning sensation. So no matter how you spiced up the food, it tasted bland. Since any food she ate tasted bland, it didn’t matter that her diet was restricted to just bland food due to the open sores.


There were lighter moments during this period. My wife had made sandwiches for both of us for lunch; this was about the third week in between treatments. Now remember chemo brain can cause loss of short-term memory. We are sitting at the kitchen table talking about how she is feeling when she said “How’s the ham does it taste good.”


I replied; “It taste great except we’re eating turkey.”


She couldn’t remember what type of sandwiches she had made. 

With out missing a beat she responded, “Ham, turkey it makes no difference to me, I can’t taste it anyway.”  We both started laughing.


The sense of taste comes back after the chemo treatments end, the amount of time depends on the person. In my wife’s case, I think it took about five months, but when it came back it was almost instantaneous. One day she couldn’t taste anything she ate; the next day she could taste everything she ate.                     

Five and a Half Years After Chemo Need I Say More

Pushing Through to The End of The Treatments


Chemo treatments take a physical, mental, and emotional toll on the patient, but you can’t let them stop the treatment until it is done. When my wife finished her sixth treatment, she said she didn’t want to go back again. She was sick of being sick; she wanted her life back. She just could not do any more treatments. It is at this point that you as the caregiver have to do something you never thought you would do.

You beg, plead and finally turn into a drill sergeant and demand that she take those last treatments. You become a Son of A Bitch in order to get her through those treatments. Physically it is rough, to say the least on her, but I kept telling her what the doctor said; “The reason for the chemo treatments are just in case there is even one infinitesimal cancer cell left in your body the chemo will kill it.”

My wife would sigh and say, “I know, but I just can’t take it anymore.”

I would hold her tight and tell her to try and tough it out. I told her “If the cancer comes back you don’t want to ask your self, ‘What if I had done those last two treatments?’

She cried and hugged me tighter. Then I hit below the belt. I said; “ Honey my mother stopped her chemo before the last two treatments and the cancer came back. Don’t you want to be around for your grandchildren?

She got through the last two treatments, I felt like a piece of garbage for forcing her to go through that hell, but the possible alternative was unacceptable to both of us. She was counting on me to be there when it got rough; I had no choice. That is the toughest part of being a primary caregiver. You can’t let your emotions take over when it is time to make tough choices. If you let your emotions take control, you will be shopping for a casket in five years alone instead of shopping for baby clothes for the grandchild together.

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