10 Basic Chemo Survival Tips

Sonia Harris
6 min readApr 6, 2018

While undergoing chemotherapy treatment my biggest resources were friends who’d already experienced it. With their help I was able to live through chemo. It wasn’t pleasant but I did it and since then a lot of my friends have asked what helped me so here is a short list:

  1. Ask for help.
    And ask for exactly what you want. People who say “Can I help?” need to be told what to do because they don’t know. Tell them, don’t be shy. It was awkward and embarrassing for me to be so helpless and need so much, but it was much worse when I wasn’t clear about what I needed because then I’d get sicker and sicker. Stop the cycle and open up, if they don’t want to hear it or don’t want to help, then at least you know and now you can look to other people to help. Keep asking, because somewhere there are people who can help you.
  2. Take care of your needs when you can.
    If you have a good day when you feel strong, use it to take care of yourself. This is the time to be selfish, you are the only person who truly knows what you need and can feel what is going on with your body right now. Take a shower, clean your space up, buy groceries and prepare them so that if/when you can’t move again, you’ve got everything you need.
  3. Distract yourself.
    Get some interesting books or put some engaging games on your phone so that you have things to do if you get stuck sitting on the toilet for an hour or two while your body figures out what the hell is going on. It may not happen, but if you find yourself spending a lot of time there, it doesn’t help to overthink how you feel at that point. Days when I could not get out of bed or think straight were how I started drawing my swearing patterns on my ipad and they helped me enormously. Distraction is the key.
  4. An L-Glutamine solution can help heal mouth and stomach lesions.
    Gargle with (and drink) a solution of one tsp of L-Glutamine in water daily during the months of chemo treatment. This helps the soft tissue in your mouth, throat and stomach to repair itself so that the sores don’t make eating painful. Cell duplication is prevented during chemo and that is why your mouth and other soft-tissue can’t repair as quickly and needs this extra care. A powder-based version is essential so that you can rinse your mouth out and not just swallow it, since it will help your mouth and throat heal too.
  5. Use a very soft toothbrush.
    Only use an extremely soft toothbrush. They are sold at pharmacies or online. If you use dental floss or a regular toothbrush during chemo, your gums will bleed and sores can open up that make eating difficult.
  6. Eat soft, cool foods.
    If your mouth is hurting, eat soft, bland, cool foods to help. Eating in general might be difficult, in which case try to eat whatever you can that doesn’t hurt or make you sick. Anything helps, your body will thank you for giving it fuel to get through this, even if it isn’t enjoyable to eat or it comes out fast.
  7. Incorporate probiotics into your diet.
    Try to incorporate some healthy bacteria into your diet by eating fermented foods like yoghurt or fresh sauerkraut to help your body digest food. (Obviously still avoid all of the “live” foods that could cause an infection while your white blood cell count is low, like raw fish or mouldy cheeses — two things I really missed during chemo.)
  8. Drink freshly juiced vegetables and fruit.
    Juiced fruit and vegetables are packed with the vitamins and energy you need. This is slightly contentious since one of my doctors recommend avoiding all uncooked fruit and vegetables to avoid infection. Obviously if your white blood cell count is low, this won’t be for you, so ask your doctors advice. I minimized the risk of infection by washing my fruit and vegetables in Bragg’s apple vinegar, which sterilized it and added some more help to my digesting. My most helpful juice recipe that gave me the energy to get through a day was: half a bunch of kale, half a bunch of parsley, 2 or so carrots, an apple, some celery or cucumber, a baby-fist-sized hunk of fresh ginger. These are all ingredients which are packed with nutrients and anti-inflammatories. (I would have said to add turmeric but that is a big no-no. Turmeric can actually amplify the side-effects of chemotherapy [which is a mistake I made with my first treatment] so reserve that for the months after treatment is all over.)
  9. “Chemo brain” is real.
    There are some studies which suggest the hippocampus uses cell duplication to form new memories, so this would explain some of the fuzzy confusion that descends after a few treatments. There are breeds of mushrooms which can help cognitive ability and I found taking a supplement containing Lions Mane and Reishi helped enormously. Like the fresh juice and L-Glutamine mentioned above, this was something I took which had an almost immediately beneficial effect.
  10. Go outside.
    Being around in nature will help, but it doesn’t need to be much if you can’t handle much. If your white blood cell count is low, avoid people but still, go outside, walk around for 10 minutes, do what you can. At one point all I could do was get out the car and stand around because I didn’t have the energy to walk along the beach or through the forest, but it still helped me to be near the ocean or big trees and see all that life teeming before me. It’s a nice reminder of what we are made of when chemo makes life feels so distant.

These are the absolute essentials, just the things I can think of which made life possible for those months. Before I started any of this I researched it all and asked my doctors about it, and I strongly recommend you do your own research and talk to your own doctors about anything you’re doing during chemo.

Everyone is different and if you can acknowledge that, you may have an easier time.

Before I started treatment I read insane websites (which didn’t help) and helpful books which then led me to more helpful medical reports and studies I could read. Overall, websites like BreastCancer.org and the American Cancer Society were enormously helpful and I also got a lot of support by attending a group at We Spark for a little while before and after treatment. During treatment I could not make it there at all; I couldn’t make the drive and I couldn’t have sat up for 2 hours. Some people do manage it but I couldn’t, which brings me to my last chemo survival tip:
Everyone is different and if you can acknowledge that, you may have an easier time. I still fight with myself about wanting to do more and get back to my old self, but learning to be patient and enjoy the moment is also useful and I’m trying to appreciate this opportunity to learn that.

I wish you the best of luck and I’m sorry that you have to go through this.

Thank you to all of my friends who gave me this advice. The smart women who told me all these things made such a difference, and then the smart people who took care of me when I was going through it all changed my life for the better. I think about you all every day and your compassion and kindness gives me strength.