Many people start chemotherapy following a cancer diagnosis. As well as causing side effects for the person taking it, chemotherapy can carry risks for family members.
Chemotherapy is a type of medicine that kills cancer cells and stops them from reproducing. People may take the medication intravenously or orally, with the course of treatment typically lasting several months. Doctors may recommend chemotherapy to people if there is a risk of cancer spreading or it has already started spreading.
People taking chemotherapy medication may have a higher risk of catching infections. It is, therefore, important that family or household members take precautions to reduce the risk of spreading infections.
They should also take precautions to avoid close contact with chemotherapy drugs, as this could be hazardous to health.
People can take chemotherapy treatments in different ways. If a person is taking medication through a pump, via injection, or in the form of tablets, they may be able to carry out chemotherapy at home.
Cancer is not contagious, but chemotherapy drugs are strong and may pose health risks to those who have exposure to them. Oncology nurses and doctors wear protective clothing, such as goggles, gloves, gowns, or masks, when handling chemotherapy medications.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), chemotherapy medications will usually leave the body within 48–72 hours of treatment.
Although it is unlikely that family members will come into direct contact with chemotherapy medicine, drug waste may still be present in bodily fluids, such as urine, vomit, and sweat.
There are some precautionary suggestions for people who are in close contact with individuals taking chemotherapy at home. The ACS recommends:
- sitting down when using the toilet to reduce the chance of fluids splashing or using a separate toilet if available
- washing clothes, fabrics, and bedding in a machine with warm water and laundry detergent rather than by hand
- washing any material with bodily fluids on separately to other items
- washing the hands with warm water and soap, then drying them with disposable towels
- sealing adult diapers, sanitary products, and similar waste inside two plastic bags to throw them away and washing the hands thoroughly after contact
- cleaning the surrounding area thoroughly with hot, soapy water if a person vomits, then emptying any waste down the toilet, flushing it twice, and washing the hands
Chemotherapy poses very little risk to babies and toddlers, as they are unlikely to come into contact with the medical drugs or bodily fluids. However, it is the responsibility of adults to take necessary precautions to ensure the safety of any infants and young children.
The cleaning precautions above also apply if toddlers and babies are present. If possible, people might consider designating a separate toilet for children to use.
Parents or caregivers should change diapers and clothes on a sanitized surface and use disposable papers to avoid contamination with fluids. After changing the baby or toddler, it is essential to wash the hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water or sanitizer.
If a person is taking their chemotherapy medication at home, they or an adult household member should take care to store all medications out of reach of children in a safe, secure place. This advice applies to the storage of all drugs.
It is also important to store securely fastened cleaning products, such as bleach, out of reach of babies and toddlers.
Conceiving and nursing
The ACS states that people should avoid conceiving while having chemotherapy. It is also important not to breastfeed or chestfeed during chemotherapy.
Regardless of their preferred type of birth control, people taking chemotherapy drugs should still use a condom during any sexual activity to prevent any drug waste from passing to a partner through bodily fluids.
People with young children might worry about the best way to manage their relationship with them during chemotherapy because toddlers and children pick up on emotional changes and instability around them.
CancerCare suggests that parents and caregivers take the following approach when talking with children about cancer:
- using a calm voice to reassure children
- preparing an explanation and talking openly with children about what is happening
- using age-appropriate language but including direct terminology, such as cancer
- explaining the changes that they might expect to see
- signposting them to close and trusted family members or friends for support
- encouraging children to express how they feel
- showing love and affection, even when it is difficult to know what to say
Chemotherapy can weaken the immune system, which can increase the risk of infection. Family or household members can take simple steps to help reduce the risk of spreading an infection. These include:
- washing the hands regularly with warm water and soap
- using hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available
- washing the hands after using the bathroom, touching animals, or taking out the garbage
- getting the flu shot every year
- avoiding sharing personal items, such as razors, bath towels, or items that come into contact with the mouth
- keeping a working thermometer at hand to check body temperature easily
It is also important to recognize any signs of infection and contact a doctor if a person has any of the following:
- fever or chills
- new cough or shortness of breath
- area of skin discoloration or swelling
- sore throat
- new stomach pain
People may experience a range of emotions when a loved one is going through chemotherapy.
Family members and friends can provide a much-needed support network for those receiving this treatment. The following suggestions may help people prepare for and cope during challenging circumstances.
Chemotherapy may be stressful for people going through treatment and those around them. Extra, professional support may be beneficial for everybody involved, and people may need different types of support at different stages.
Sometimes, an individual may want to have company, but other times, they may prefer to be alone. By communicating their feelings or suggesting what may be helpful, a person can make it easier for others to identify what support they need.
Reaching out to third parties, such as support groups, online communities, or counselors, might be a beneficial way to maintain relationships with family members and close friends.
Outlets such as blogs, hobbies, or talking to people going through the same emotions may reassure people about their personal journey and help them form better relationships with those around them.
The ACS has a selection of resources that people looking to connect with others and find extra support may find helpful.
There are many ways to care for someone who is receiving chemotherapy. While it is important to support family or friends where possible, it is also important that a person does not neglect their own health.
The ACS suggests that caregivers, friends, or family members in a supportive role take care to eat well, exercise, and seek support when necessary.
Chemotherapy may cause fatigue, nausea, or a low blood count. Everyday tasks may be challenging to think about, let alone complete, when experiencing these side effects. Practical support may help, which people can provide by:
- arranging medical appointments
- driving the person to appointments
- helping clean the house
- doing the laundry
- preparing meals
- providing child or pet care, if necessary
While practical tasks may be useful, emotional support is an important way to care for someone going through chemotherapy. Emotional support may include:
- offering company, such as watching a film, chatting, or just sitting together
- asking how the person is feeling and remember that listening is a powerful tool
- attending a support group with them if they are unsure about going alone
- providing physical contact, such as hugging or hand holding, if this provides comfort
Chemotherapy is a medical treatment for cancer that people may sometimes be able to undergo at home.
Chemotherapy drugs are strong, so it is important that those at risk of exposure to the medicine take the correct precautions.
People going through chemotherapy may carry waste in their bodily fluids for up to a few days after treatment. Due to this, family or other household members should take precautions to stay safe.
As well as taking steps to avoid harm, it is also important to communicate effectively and talk about the emotional impact of treatment. It may help family and friends to seek support from a community group or healthcare professional.