When 25-year-old Alex Hawkins was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 4 years ago, she wasn't prepared for the treatment side effects that lay ahead. "Everything happened so fast," the Atlanta-based solutions architect says. "There's a lot that I wish I had known before I went through treatment."
A little advance planning can make a big difference in helping you manage the side effects of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Learn about the symptoms you may face and follow simple strategies that will help you feel better.
Beat Fatigue With Activity
It may seem to defy common sense, but staying active is a helpful way to handle the extreme tiredness that's caused by your treatment and sometimes the disease itself.
"I generally advocate for some form of exercise even during therapy," says Loretta J. Nastoupil, MD, assistant professor in the lymphoma/myeloma department of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. "[It] doesn't necessarily need to be vigorous, but even walking for 10 minutes a day can be very helpful to combat the fatigue and maintain a better quality of life."
"I wish I had known how much of a difference staying active would make," Hawkins says. "Days that I would walk after chemo, forcing myself to walk around a mall or the house, I would feel much better than before."
Get Proactive About Hair loss
If you're concerned about how losing hair from chemotherapy will affect your appearance, you might want to take charge before it happens. That's what Hawkins decided to do.
"I had long, thick hair that people knew me for," she says. So it came as a shock when she woke up 20 days after her first round of chemo to find clumps of it scattered around the house.
Her strategy for handling the emotional impact? Seize control before the rest of her hair fell out. She shaved her head with the support of her older brother the day after her second round of chemo.
Experts say being proactive in this way can make hair loss less upsetting since you're in control. You may decide to keep your head bare or cover it with a scarf or wig. Do what makes you comfortable.
"I had awesome friends who would do my makeup or wear fun wigs with me, and make me feel special," Hawkins says. She also credits her boyfriend for his unconditional support. "I can honestly say that he never ever looked at me differently."
Tackle Nausea With Medicine and Relaxation
If your treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has left you sick to your stomach, your doctor may suggest medicine that can help. In some cases, medications can prevent and treat nausea and vomiting. Your doctor may recommend steroids, anti-anxiety meds, antacids, or other drugs.
Also try new ways ease your stress. It was useful to Hawkins when she was having treatment side effects.
"Breathing exercises helped a lot with everything in general," she says. "It would calm me down when I couldn't stop throwing up or I would get upset or overwhelmed."
Relaxation techniques can also make a difference. "A friend who had been through chemo told me to sit in a bath of lavender Epsom salt, get Netflix on an iPad, and just sit as long as I could," Hawkins says. "This was a lifesaver."
Look for Support
You don't have to face things alone. Get the emotional backing you need to help you manage the side effects of treatment. One great way to do that: Join a support group. "It's incredibly helpful to speak to someone who has gone through a similar situation and has a unique perspective," Nastoupil says.
Busy doctors may not have time to give you all the advice you need. "It's overwhelming and nearly impossible with the time constraints that we deal with during our clinic visits," she says, "to discuss every possible side effect that may arise and the management of each."
To find out about support groups near you, contact organizations like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Lymphoma Research Foundation, and Lymphoma Coalition.
Talking to others who understood what she was going through was a big help to Hawkins. After contacting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, she was able to connect with other people who had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"I have a great support system in my family and friends, but to know that I had this huge network … including other survivors that barely even knew me, but were cheering for me, was an amazing feeling."
Hawkins also spoke to an acquaintance who had been through exactly the same journey 6 months earlier, and it paid off. "Just having someone to ask questions to, and to tell you it's normal. I would run every single symptom by her, and she would respond in an instant. It helped so much."