Introduce yourself (give us a little background!) - What was your life like before undergoing chemotherapy?
My name is Amber Denae Wright. I am 28 years old and married to the love of my life, Nick. We have been living in Cape Town for the past 5 and a half years. I was born in Johannesburg and moved here when I was finished studying at Wits. Before I was diagnosed I was working as an interior designer. My life was great before undergoing chemo. I was happy and loved my life. I thought I knew exactly what the next few years of my life were going to look like.
Bring us along your journey ‒ when were you diagnosed with cancer? What was your initial reaction?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2020, just a week before my 28th Birthday. I had a lump removed from my right breast which was thought to be a fibroadenoma but turned out to be a 4cm tumor. It was the biggest shock of my life. My immediate thought was that it was impossible. I was only 27 at the time and no one in my family has or has had breast cancer. In that moment when the surgeon spoke those words, it felt as though my entire world came crashing down around me. I felt as though I had somehow walked into someone else's life. All I could think of was that this couldn't be happening to me. I was then given more information about my type of cancer and what my treatment plan would entail. When the words chemotherapy were spoken all I could think of was that I was going to lose my hair. The movies and TV series I had watched with bald and sickly cancer patients were my only reference to cancer. I just kept thinking... I'm going to look like that.
What was your first chemotherapy treatment like? What treatment/treatments did you or are currently undergoing?
I started chemotherapy 3,5 weeks after I was diagnosed. I was so anxious and so scared for my first session. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I was very emotional, especially because my husband wasnʼt able to stay with me because of COVID. It was so hard to say goodbye to him every single session and be left alone to face such a huge giant every week. Those chemo sessions were some of the hardest and loneliest moments of this journey. I had 16 rounds of chemotherapy over 20 weeks. After that I underwent a lumpectomy and then a second surgery when they found another precancerous cell in the same breast. I am currently in the middle of my radiation treatment which will be completed in about 2 weeks.
Who did you turn to as your support system?
I have been blessed with the most incredible support team, all of whom I would never have been able to walk this journey without. My husband, Nick, has been my rock. From the moment I was diagnosed he has been by my side, going above and beyond what I could ever have expected of him. He has taken me to every appointment, done research, read books and picked up all of the slack at home. Whether it was groceries, cooking, cleaning or any of our day to day responsibilities, he took it all on to ensure that I could put 100% of my energy into fighting and getting through this. My parents and two younger sisters, who live in Cape Town as well, have been incredible. Helping us with meals, groceries and prayers. I spent time recovering from my surgeries at my parents' house where everyone helped to take care of me and ease the burden on Nick. I also have the most amazing extended family and friends all over the world who have sent gifts, checked in on me continuously and prayed for me throughout this journey. An unexpected blessing during this time has been my Instagram family. I decided, early on, that I would share my journey on Instagram and in doing so I have 'met' the most amazing people who send me messages of support and love daily and who have kept me going on the hard days with their kind words. I have no doubt that without the many incredible people in my life, I could never have gotten through the past eight months.
What is something you wished you knew before starting your chemo treatment?
To be honest, I donʼt think that there was anything that I wish I knew before I started. I think at the time, having just received the most life altering news, knowing too much about what lay ahead would have been too overwhelming for me. I did reach out to two girls who had been through this already and they gave me encouragement as well as a list of items to take to chemo which was so helpful. But more than that I wouldnʼt have wanted to know because I think it would have made me even more anxious about what lay ahead.
Has your daily routine changed? If so, how?
Practically speaking, my diagnosis changed many areas of my life temporarily and some areas of my life permanently. Overall, I have to be more intentional about what I put in and on my body in ways I'd never even thought of before. There are certain dietary recommendations that I have chosen to stick to even though chemo is behind me. I try to avoid certain foods that are known to be carcinogenic and I try to limit my sugar where I can. One of the key practical challenges of this disease is finding the balance between living your life and applying all of the lifestyle recommendations following a breast cancer diagnosis. The biggest practical adjustment, however, is that for the rest of my life I will have to go for even more regular checkups and scans. This is what makes this journey so difficult, you can never leave it behind.
Have there been certain side effects that have been worse than others?
During chemo the main side effect was low energy levels. You feel tired all of the time and overall just donʼt have much energy. The toughest side effect for me was the headaches. I suffered from terrible headaches throughout my chemo which was really tough, especially because you arenʼt really allowed to take too many different pain killers so I wasnʼt really able to manage them with strong pain killers. And then the nausea was also difficult. When it hit it was seriously debilitating.
What are tips/tricks you have learned along the way to help with chemo side effects?
The best advice my husband gave me, which he had read about in a book about breast cancer, was to take the nausea medication as soon as you felt yourself starting to feel nauseous. As opposed to allowing it to get worse and then trying to fix it. I found this very effective in handling my nausea. The other thing I always had nearby was ginger biscuits. When I felt nauseous I would eat a ginger biscuit and that also helped a lot. When I was suffering so badly from headaches, and nothing was taking them away, a friend of mine suggested taking Compral tablets, and they were the only tablets that would actually sort out my chemo headaches. I would only take them when it was really bad because you have to limit your anti-inflammatory intake but they worked pretty well for the headaches.
Do you recommend any chemo friendly products?
One of the easy changes I made when I started chemo was to cut out adding sugar into anything and instead replace it with Sucralose sweetener which I have continued and will continue to use. I would highly recommend getting a good, nourishing body cream, as the chemo made my skin very dry. Ginger tea and ginger biscuits are a must. We found really good low sugar biscuits from Wellness Warehouse which I loved.
Any advice for other chemo patients?
I think the first thing that is so important to know is that YOU WILL GET THROUGH IT. Chemo is really tough but you will get through it and if you can look at it as the thing that is making you better then that can also help your mental state regarding chemo. I wasnʼt able to have anyone with me during my treatment so I took my iPad with me to watch series on. This was really helpful for me as it took my mind off of the treatment and also helped the time pass quickly. It is also important to take a big bottle of water with you as well as snacks. I always took mini yoghurts, cut fruit and biltong with for when I got hungry. The other thing that I found really helpful was buying myself a wig before I lost my hair. It was the thing I dreaded the most about chemo. So because I knew that it was coming, I went and bought myself a wig. I found that it helped relieve some of the anxiety I had about losing my hair because I had a beautiful wig that could help me feel “normal” when I lost my hair. Then lastly I would say lean on the people around you. This road is tough and it is long, you will need the people around you to support you and sometimes carry you.