Chemotherapy and Flashbacks

I am in the middle of a one-year cancerversary from going through Chemotherapy which for me was Adriamycin Cytoxan and Taxol over a 5 month period.    Just writing about this makes me feel nauseated.  So I had to look up “Chemo Flashbacks”.    Many people suffer from Chemo flashbacks.  I am not alone!

I had pancakes at a restaurant a few days ago.  It popped into my brain that I had not had pancakes since going through Chemo.  Pancakes were one of the foods I could eat in the beginning of Chemo.  Just eating that pancake made me sick.  I had to stop.   I still cannot look at juice bars as I ate so many juice bars to stay hydrated.  I have to hurry past them in the grocery store.    I lived on cottage cheese to keep my protein levels up.  No way can I eat cottage cheese now.   I paid attention to the warnings people gave me about being careful not to eat your favorite foods on Chemo as you won’t like them when you are done.  There certainly is truth to that statement!

One of my Chemo Nurses told me about a favorite patient she had in the days when anti-nausea meds were almost non-existent.  She ran into him at a local mall and was thrilled to see him thriving after his near death.   He was overjoyed to see her as well, but took one look at her and immediately vomited in the middle of the mall.  His body just spontaneously reacted 10 years later!

My former brother-in-law is a 35 year cancer survivor.  The medical staff gave him Watermelon Jolly Ranchers to help the nausea.  To this day, he will throw up if he even sees that hard candy.

The Journal of Clinical Oncology did a study of over 600 cancer patients that received chemotherapy.  Over one-third of the former cancer patients had flashbacks and other symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Megan, a volunteer with SHARE, wrote about her Chemotherapy Flashbacks years after she finished Chemo:

For me, specific odors, flavors, songs, books and movies recall in a flash my experience of breast cancer:

  • Whether I’m cleaning my computer keyboard or removing the gummy residue of a price tag, the smell of rubbing alcohol conjures up the chill of my port being swabbed for an infusion, and I feel again the fear of the poisons about to be poured into my veins.
  • There’s a wonderful peanut-butter-and-chicken soup in Jane Brody’s “Good Food Cookbook.” I used to love it. Now not so much. My husband used to make it for me after chemotherapy to stimulate my appetite and make sure I got enough fluids. Now the taste of it calls to mind mouth sores and the dreadful, deep lethargy of post-chemo malaise.
  • Daniel Powter’s song “Bad Day” seemed to be on the air 24/7 the year I was chemo bald. Most people I know hated the song, but I liked it. “You had a bad day” — simple words, but they hit the nail on the head for me. I was having a bad day every day. Once in a while, I hear the refrain again and remember the misery of seeing my pasty face and hairless scalp in the mirror, the effort it took to face the world exposed like that, the comfort of singing under my breath, “You had a bad day/ You’re taking one down/ You sing a sad song just to turn it around …”

If you are a former Chemo patient, please post and let us know if you have had these flashbacks.



  1. I had the Adriamycin and Cytoxan infusions for my breast cancer back in 1998/99. UGH! Thank goodness it was only 4 treatments. The first wasn’t so bad but did get progressively worse. I think I dealt with the bald head okay but being able to eat (and keep down) such a limited list of food really was hard. I only ate white foods after the first treatment and not much else after subsequent treatments. I guzzled tons of ice water and the only food that didn’t smell funny or come up on me was Special K cereal with low-fat milk. I’d eat tiny portions through the day and that is what I lived on for about 2 months. Needless to say I have stayed far away from that cereal to this day. Not a diet technique I’d recommend.

    Sometimes when I’m on the freeway around a lot of semis I catch a whiff of their exhaust and I flashback to my trips to our downtown hospital and my stomach lurches a bit. At least I could have newspaper in the house again after the chemo stuff subsided — couldn’t stand the stink of them during treatment.

    The worst of everything though was the “chemo-brain” that kept me from thinking of anything for more than a few seconds at a time. I was afraid it wouldn’t go away but it did.

    Okay, that’s my tale of woe – LOL! Let’s all keep the good thought and live to the best of our abilities. Remember: Every day you wake up is a good day!

    Dearborn, Michigan

    • Hi Karen – thanks so much for sharing your story with us! I was a cereal chemo eater too.
      Haven’t had cereal since! I appreciate your story, and CONGRATULATIONS FOR BEING A
      SURVIVOR! You give us all HOPE! Thank you! Denise

  2. Too funny you bring this up now Denise. I haven’t had a chemo flash back until I had the flu over Christmas. I was so cold that I put on one of my hats since my hair is so short and had two blankets on. I was so tired I fell asleep and I swear I relived a terrible “chemo” nightmare. I couldn’t wake up but it was so real. Terrifying!

  3. Denise, I had the same treatment as you in 2010. When i drive by my oncologist’s medical building, I get that queasy “I want to upchuck” feeling in my stomach. I’m so glad I recently moved from the area so I never have to drive past that building again.

  4. I don’t have this problem, lucky me. I have very thin hair though. You have much more hair than me. I guess we can’t have it all. Miss you and the blogging world.

  5. I myself have chemo flashbacks, but its a 102 temp and achy body every 6 months. Cant figure out why. The only thing I can think of is when I head chemo this is the way I felt my doctor said that it’s impossible but then again I don’t believe everything they say I’ve been cancer-free for two years and every six months since then I get chemoflashbacks to where I’m sick in bed body aches so bad for 24 to 72 hours anybody else feel this way ever?

  6. I just started what i guess are chemo flashbacks a few weeks ago. Out of nowhere. Confusing and disorienting at the time. My mouth all of a sudden was very reminiscent of what i call my chemo mouth then. Burning toungue and awful, disgusting taste. Nauseating. It passed. Leaving me bewildered. And then a few days ago it happened again, stronger. Upsetting. And again today. Mostly here today, so weird. Mildly nauseous with it. And THEN- i had a strong flashback to the smell of my chemo urine. It would almost make me vomit. I don’t understand why yhis is happening. Not a fan. I’m not quite a year out since my chemo. Certainly not a year out from radiation. Glad i’m not the only one. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Lisa, very normal to have these flashbacks – are the dates important to your diagnosis or
      dates of treatment? Often, this happens and you don’t even know why. Sending all my best…
      it still happens to me and I am 6 years out from chemo! It gets better and you learn how to deal
      with it better. Denise

    • I totally understand the chemo flashback, I havr been 3 years Cancer FREE and every six month get fever 104 shakes, all I do is sleep. It’s 2 days only.,just like when I was going through treatments so awful. I spoke with my Dr and she said she has never heard of such a thing. THIS happens like clockwork every 6 months

    • One thing I forgot, Lisa. My sister had her 6 month checkup today for her 3 year mark since breast cancer diagnosis.
      She was telling her Physician’s Assistant how anxiety-ridden she is before coming to the Cancer Center. They had a long
      discussion of how common PTSD symptoms are in cancer patients.

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