How To Help A Cancer Patient, Part III

June 21, 2010 at 1:30 PM (after chemo, Help, Recovery, Treatment) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Last week we started talking about useful products to keep in your (now-crowded) cancer-patient bathroom to help you get through treatments, etc. and back to your regularly scheduled life. Here are some more favorites.

Comfort

Most patients, even newbies, have some idea of what to expect with surgery recoveries and treatments. There were some big surprises for me, though, and at the risk of sharing too much, I thought I’d pass along some trade secrets. It might get a bit graphic – apologies to the uninitiated.

Your bowels may never have been a problem until you were diagnosed with cancer, especially those of the lower abdomen and pelvis. But starting with CT prep (barium shakes) and moving right through surgery prep, anesthesia recovery, and on to chemo, there will be days when you can think of nothing else. (As a life-long poop-o-phobe, this was a horrible adjustment for me.) Start by asking the radiology department to give you Gastrografin instead of barium shakes before your scans. A flavorless vial of liquid that you mix with the juice or Crystal Light flavor of your choice, Gastro is orders-of-magnitude more palatable than that thick white crap. Not only does it go down so much easier, but it doesn’t seem to run like a Roto-Rooter through my lower intestines for the following three days. If your hospital/clinic doesn’t carry it, start complaining, loudly, until they do. I don’t care if it costs more – make the people who write the checks take a few swigs of the banana-flavored “Smoothie”, and they’ll be on your side in a jiffy.

On the other hand, anesthesia of any sort, various chemo agents, most narcotic pain relievers, and nearly all anti-emetics push your GI tract off the opposite cliff. (My gal Kelly Corrigan refers to it as “tear-jerking constipation” and is not wrong.) With the chemo protocols, it’s really smart (and pretty easy, once you figure out your patterns) to prepare your body ahead of time: lots of fiber, fruits and veggies, and plenty of hydration the day before your treatment. Once you’re on the chemo, make sure you keep your nausea under control (take the Zofran before you need it), but maintain your system with Senokot (or the drug-store generic) – I used to take one to two pills, three times a day, for the first week after treatment. If senna isn’t enough on its own, and you’re DRINKING tons of water and GETTING SOME EXERCISE (yes, even just a stagger down the block), you may want to add Miralax. I personally couldn’t stand this stuff, but have heard others swear by using it routinely. On occasion, I needed to escalate to Milk of Magnesia, and there were two post-anesthesia occasions when I had to ride the Fleet train. My advice: get on top of your symptoms early, and keep adding more aggressive interventions until the problem is solved. Skip the middle-of-the-night run to the 24-hour Walgreens at all costs.

Jeez, I’m just having a little freak-out that I’m actually discussing all of this. (See earlier comments about poop-o-phobia.)

When all of this colon fun gets to be too much, ask your doctor for Anusol. Take warm baths with Epsom salts. Stock up on Tucks and Prep H. ‘Nuff said.

Nausea

The stomach gets really hammered during cancer stuff. Fasting for blood tests. Heartburn from chemo. Nausea from nearly everything. There are lots of options to get you out from under it, so don’t stop trying until you find a solution that works for you. My first oncology nurse, a 30-year veteran, God love her, told me when I was feeling nauseous, to eat something, and that might cure it. If eating didn’t make it better, then medicate it! I was lucky enough to have Emend covered by my insurance, and it was fabulous during my first round of chemo. Last summer, I got IV Aloxi as a pre-med before my carbo/taxol, and it worked just as well, without me having to remember to take it. Zofran makes me a little nervous, because although it’s very effective, and widely prescribed, it bungs me up like a cork. Ativan is lovely, if you can swing it, but there better be another responsible adult in the house if I take it. (Great for naps and bedtime.) These anti-emetics are so effective that even after four years of treatments, etc., I have only actually thrown up once, and that was when I was trying to avoid taking Zofran. Silly rabbit.

Heartburn during my IP chemo often felt initially like nausea, but once I started taking Prilosec every morning the nausea disappeared. If you’re feeling nauseous, you might want to start with heartburn meds and escalate if those don’t work (especially as they won’t terrorize your colon like Zofran).

Sleep

One of the best (?) things about cancer is that I’ve been able to catch up on my sleep. Daily naps that I used to feel guilty about when the boys were toddlers are now necessities, and the family accommodates my soporific indulgences with good-natured ribbing, if not stocking feet. Thus I recommend a good pair of earplugs, which make napping anywhere, any time effortless. Next time you’re on an airplane, buy their blanket/earplug/neck pillow set, and you’ll have a Nap Kit ready in case of an emergency. All for less than $10.

Only sometimes you won’t be able to sleep. The steroids that come along with so many treatments can make sleep a tantalizing illusion, even when you’re exhausted. For you, I have no personal recommendation other than Ativan or Tylenol PM, which gave me just enough sleepy oomph to drift off and ignore my lower-back pain last spring. I’m sure there are better options out there, I just haven’t needed them myself – I hear Ambien is fantastic.

That seems to have exhausted my expertise for meds of all sorts. I can’t believe that we spend time talking about these issues, but cancer babes (and dudes) have to stick together and get through this.  I’d love to hear about your favorites. Never know when I might need to use them, right?

How To Help A Cancer Patient, Part I

How To Help A Cancer Patient, Part II

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