TIPS for surviving chemotherapy

I’m gonna break it down to just five things… Hydration, scalp care, nutrition, communication, and exercise.

Hydration – drink as much as you can as often as you can (unless you are instructed to do otherwise, of course)! This helps with a few things. One – it gets the poison out of your body faster… helps your kidneys… and helps with the horrible side effect of CONSTIPATION – meh – embarrassing and uncomfortable… and kind of depressing at times… Do drink up! I drank a lot of hot tea and water…. Sometimes, you gotta just break down and take some laxatives and softeners… And if you are well hydrated, they work much much better.

Caveat – a friend of mine who is also a survivor of cancer pointed out that TOO MUCH water can be a bad thing…  That is true….

Alopecia scalp care – OK – an ugly side of chemo hair loss is horrible horrible ugly pizza head. And by ugly, I mean ginormous ugly looking white heads on your scalp! The things look painful and are painful. Not everyone gets them, but I sure as heck did! And there’s no way a person could tell me – oh – they aren’t really all that noticeable! The docs all told me to just leave my head open to the air. I just couldn’t do that because I found the acne to be so … well… embarrassing! They also said no hot showers! I love hot showers! They also said don’t rub your head when you dry it – just pat it dry!!!! NONE of these things helped even one tiny bit. So, I did some research… and combined things I found in order to come up with my own recipe for success.

Lee Penn’s two-step recipe for a smooth and acne-free chemo scalp.

ONE: When you shower, use hibiclens on your head. Do not let hibiclens get into your eyes or ears. Use a dime amount in the palm of your wet hand… Before your head gets wet, rub that all over your head for around 15-30 seconds…. RINSE SUPER WELL! Your shower can be as hot or not hot as you prefer.

Lee Penn's totally acne-free and smooth bald head.

TWO: After you shower and your scalp is dry, use a salicylic acid solution on your head. About a dime to nickel size amount in your palm – rub over your whole head… I believe that you are free to rub or pat your head dry. I like to rub because it just feels good. Then, Once totally try, wear whatever you like on your head.

Viola! Within about one week, my horrid scalp acne had completely resolved, and I was once again willing to let the world see my bald head.

Nutrition: I did a TON of research after my initial diagnosis, and it’s HARD to wade through the copious amounts of information out there. As a scientist, I turned to the primary scientific literature in order to figure out what supplements I should consider adding to my daily routine. After generating a list, I reviewed these – one by one – with my oncologist. After that, I had a list of about five things that I took on a daily basis (glutamine – I highly recommend checking out whether this one is appropriate for you and your chemo regimen – selenium, vitamin B12, iron, and vitamin D).

In addition, I was a long-time vegetarian, and I went completely vegan. THere’s a lot of compelling research suggesting that a plant-based diet is the best diet in terms of disease prevention (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and more). I’ve eaten a handful of non-vegan things, like my child’s birthday cake and an occasional treat. Overall, less than a fraction of a percent of my calories have involved animal products. My oncologist was STRONGLY in favor of this move. In the end, delicious food is delicious food – whether it’s vegan or not. So, I made a point of eating delicious food that was vegan nearly all the time. Of course, taste buds go whack… and somethings taste terrible… During AC – everything tasted like bad black olives…

COMMUNICATION: On this one, I was no where near perfect, but when I did communicate effectively, things were definitely better. This included things like telling Cheryl (love of my life) how I was feeling to being open about side effects with my health care providers. So, as much as you sometimes don’t want to talk about it, there are times when you really should talk about it – during your appointments and with your beloved ones….

Exercise: ALL of my health care providers were very supportive of daily exercise. The two oncologiests on my team said that the number one thing a person can do to minimize side effects is exercise. I rode my bike every day of chemotherapy, with the exception of three days over which I was in Denver for a conference. Sometimes those rides were SHORT…. Other days were great days, and I was able to ride with friends…. It helped me preserve my sanity, hold on to some muscle mass, sleep better, generate some appetite, and just plain get around (it’s my primary mode of transportation). When in bike gear, people didn’t seem to notice that I look like a cancer patient. That was GLORIOUS!!!! This is especially true in the winter, when one covers from top of the head to tips of the toes….

So, that’s Lee Penn’s top five tips for chemo. I don’t know if these might help others out there… Take what you will, and leave the rest.


About rleepenn

I'm a mom and a chemistry professor, and I love to ride bikes! On July 29th, 2011, I received the news that I have breast cancer. This is my blog....
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9 Responses to TIPS for surviving chemotherapy

  1. JenH says:

    Love your tips! Glad you are well!

  2. Rebecca P says:

    Just read through a couple of your blogs, feel terrible i have not been online at all! The journey sounds arguious…cant believe how you seem to function so well. I guess it comes with all the other battles you’ve pulled through in this life. F*** cancer.

  3. Katie says:

    Thanks for the hibiclens tip for the scalp. Once your pizza head cleared up, did you use moisturizer or sunscreen on your scalp? I believe I will start losing my hair soon and everything I’ve read says moisturize moisturize. I also have pizza chin. Delightful, but what’s a girl to do?? Btw, love, love, love pizza head! Still laughing!

    • rleepenn says:

      Nope – I used NOTHING aside from the hibiclens in the shower and the salicylic acid solution after drying off. If you tend to have super dry skin, then you might need something, but I would recommend something suitable for very sensitive skin… Pretty sure the pizza scalp plan will work for the pizza chin (that’s a huge drag, by the way). Good luck! I hope that you are pizza-head-free!

  4. LindaB says:

    I’m trying out your tips on my poor husband. He’s on afatinib which is causing excruciatingly painful acne from scalp to (so far) thighs ( – it’s still creeping down). The oncologist has prescribed some antibiotic rub (that hurts) and vitamin E which he can’t get easily on his head. Nothing is helping yet — it’s only been 2 weeks, This chemo doesn’t get the hair, and he’s got a beautiful full head, so we’re hoping the shampoo does some good. Did the salicyldic acid hurt the white heads?

  5. Theresa says:

    Lee, Just now purchased the ingredients to “Lee Penns pizza head free recipe.” Just had my #2 chemo last week and can’t stand the painful, red itchy head. Did you only do this once daily? My apologies if you did say, I just can’t find it.
    Warm Regards,

    • rleepenn says:

      Good morning – so sorry you have to deal with this.
      When attempting to resolve pizza head, I did do the protocol daily.
      Then, once it cleared up, I did it every time I took a shower, which was approx every other day….
      I wish you maximum efficacy with a minimum of side effects!
      Kind regards,

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