Getting through chemo

My heart goes out to anyone going through chemotherapy. I feel as though I can identify a fellow chemotherapy patient from a mile away—I have developed a kind of radar, having been through it myself. Many cancer patients are true warriors, a number of which I met while going through chemotherapy. I do not consider myself to be in their class. I had it easier than many, yet I could not write a book about my cancer experience without including a chapter on chemotherapy and what I learned from it.

I consider getting through chemotherapy my biggest challenge, and in a way, my biggest achievement. I was so grateful to be finally through this part of my treatment.

Every patient’s approach to chemotherapy is different. Your approach depends on the kind of cancer you have and the kind of chemotherapy prescribed as well as the kind of person that you are. There are a few people who appear to sail through chemotherapy with very little trouble, but they are definitely the minority. Most people experience serious effects and encounter significant challenges, and a few have serious complications.

Overall, I think I did well. I fought hard and did the very best that I could. I tried to create the most favorable environment for myself to get through it. I can’t point to any single thing as the key ingredient (except perhaps a determination to endure). I found that it was putting all these things together that was the recipe for me to have a good outcome.

I want to share the things I did that helped me. They may help you or a loved one or give you clues to finding your own way of “getting through chemo.”

Side Effects

There is no question that chemotherapy is an intense treatment. It was a frightening sensation to feel those chemicals going into my body, knowing the potential side effects. I almost felt that I had to be alert and vigilant so that the good cells would not be harmed.

Many of the side effects of chemotherapy—such as nausea and hair loss—are well known, and I was expecting them. However, chemotherapy affects almost every system in the body in some way, and there are many other effects, great and small. Talk to your doctor, do your research, and find out what to expect in the way of side effects. Then you will be prepared to deal with them if they do arise.

One effect I was not expecting was that the chemotherapy would make me forgetful and fuzzy in my thinking at times. Patients and doctors call it “chemo-brain,” a condition very familiar to anyone who has had it. It’s like your brain is made of cotton wool. It is hard to study or concentrate on anything except television or very light reading. I took all kinds of books to the hospital for my first visit only to find that I simply could not get into them. The nurses told me that many chemo patients feel the same way—they come in armed with books to study, only to find that chemo-brain takes over. Chemo-brain also makes it hard to gain a sense of control over one’s life and circumstances, since it causes absent-mindedness and makes it difficult to focus on tasks.

Spiritually and energetically, I could feel the chemo entering and leaving my body. I would breathe a sigh of relief when, a few days after the end of the chemo session, it was finally eliminated from my body. It felt as if an unwelcome houseguest had gone and I could finally be alone in my own body.

Spiritual Techniques

I used a number of spiritual techniques during the chemotherapy. I said a prayer over the plastic bags containing the chemotherapy agents before they went into my body. I blessed them by placing my hands on them and asking that they be charged with light. I often placed a picture of a favorite saint, such as Mary or Jesus, over the bag, attached by a rubber band. I visualized the chemotherapy as liquid light entering my body. I saw it as brilliant violet/blue/green light, the colors of transformation, protection, and healing.

I prayed that the chemotherapy agents would go only to the cancer or to wherever they were needed in my body. I specifically asked that the chemotherapy not harm the healthy tissue and cells in my body. (I gave the same instruction to my body during the radiation treatment, and I saw the radiation as the X-rays of God going into my body and filling it with light.)

Prayer often sustained me when I was feeling the effects of the medication, yet at those times it felt as if my faith were being tested, because the medication made it hard to feel the effects of the prayers. At times I felt as if I were encased in lead. The subtle vibrations of spiritual energy or the sense of contact with God I could normally feel when I prayed or meditated or gave mantras seemed to be much diminished in the midst of chemotherapy. I remember feeling that my prayers were not going very far, almost as if they would go two inches above my head and then fizzle out. Other patients told me that they also found it harder to pray or had a sense that their prayers were somehow less effective.

These are the unspoken tests that come with cancer. It is not just a physical trial—as inconvenient and painful as this might be—but a spiritual one, too. It was for me a “dark night” when everything seemed bleak and lonely. I would often feel numb and somewhat cut off from the light and the presence of God. It was hard to connect to those who could not relate to what I was going through. This is why there is an unspoken connection with other cancer patients going through chemotherapy.

What I Learned about the Power of Prayer

I somehow thought after the second chemotherapy treatment that my prayers were not really working, because I could not feel the light as much as I usually did. It was a real effort to focus on prayer and spiritual work in the midst of nausea and chemo-brain—especially when the spiritual work did not seem to be helping. So, on the third visit, I prayed less and relied more on the prayers of others.

I learned a very important lesson. There are times when we need to rely solely on the prayers of others. However, if we are still able to pray, then we should do our part. As a minister, I had often told people that prayer works whether you feel it working or not. Anyone who really knows prayer will tell you that the times you feel alone and cut off are exactly when you should keep praying. However, it can be hard to remember these things when you are suffering through a trial such as cancer.

I soon learned what a mistake it was to cut back on my prayers. The third session was one of the most difficult. I took it as a lesson, and I learned to let go and let God be the judge of whether the prayers were working or not. What vanity to think that if I could not feel them, God could not feel them. I realized that my intellectual mind had been trying to outsmart me.

During the fourth and final chemotherapy session, I prayed in a more centered and detached way. I visualized the prayers as pencil beams of light going up out of the earth’s atmosphere to contact God and the angels. I found that this session went far better than the third one, and I also realized that I had just done my own clinical trial on the effectiveness of prayer.


Nausea and tiredness are the twin companions of cancer patients. For me, the nausea and the sick feeling while the chemotherapy was going in and for a few days afterwards was the most difficult experience. It is hard to describe how bad constant nausea makes one feel. There is nowhere to go and nowhere to hide to get away from it.

I tried a number of different things for the nausea, but no one thing really did the trick for me. I took several herbal and homeopathic medicines as well as traditional medicines. They seemed to work together to keep it at bay. Getting up and about or walking helped, as did gentle exercise and stretching.

There seems to be a strong mind-body component to nausea, as I found out from one very interesting experience. On the evening of my last day of chemotherapy, Peter talked me into going with him to see the new Star Wars movie that had just been released. I didn’t feel much like going, but he was looking forward to it, and I thought it might take my mind off things. Besides, if I was going to be feeling bad it would not make much difference if I was sitting in a movie theater or a hotel room.

As it turned out, I became very absorbed in the movie, and when we walked out I was amazed to realize that for those two hours I had not felt tired or nauseated at all. Once the movie was over the feeling of nausea soon returned, and I did not seem to be able to get back to that place where the movie had somehow taken me, where I was no longer aware of feeling sick. However, I certainly learned something about the power of the mind.


After the shock of the initial diagnosis and the subsequent surgery, I was tired and drained. They say that sleep deprivation is cumulative. I felt that I could have slept for months and still not been replenished. Initially, I spent a number of days in bed just resting and recovering. This soon stretched into several weeks of sleeping in and lounging around in my nightgown. Once I felt that I had gotten the rest I needed, I decided to get up and get dressed each morning after Peter went to work.

By the time the chemotherapy treatments started, I was as ready as I could be. I made sure that I got all the sleep that I needed, but I also got up each day because I had work to do. I was a cancer-fighter. I decided that I would think of fighting cancer as a job. That included taking good care of myself.

Tiredness is one of the things that you expect with chemotherapy, but I was generally very fortunate with this—it only really affected me during the treatment. When I was tired, I took time to get the rest I needed and to adjust my activity to my energy level, and I found I would be fine after a few days. I think the exercise and other therapies I used helped raise my energy level in general so that the usual tiredness that goes with chemotherapy did not affect me as much as it does many people.


Excerpted from A Journey through Cancer, by Neroli Duffy