Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells, but it also kills healthy cells, causing side effects such as hair loss and a weaker immune system. Preparing for chemotherapy in the right way can help a person manage this treatment and deal with its challenges.
In most cases, a person does not need to make any medical preparations for chemotherapy. However, understanding the side effects and developing a support plan can make this treatment easier to manage.
This article explains how to prepare for chemotherapy and provides some helpful tips on what to do afterward.
A person can prepare for chemotherapy by taking the following steps:
Learn about treatment
Every chemotherapy treatment
- What are the goals of treatment?
- Can chemotherapy cure my cancer? If not, how likely is it to prolong my life?
- Where will I be undergoing treatment?
- What time do I need to be there?
- What is the name of the drugs I will be taking?
- Are there any medications, foods, or activities that I should avoid during chemotherapy?
- Is there an emergency after-hours number for chemotherapy complications?
- When should I call about treatment side effects?
- How long are the side effects likely to last?
Ask about fertility
The American Cancer Society notes that chemotherapy can affect fertility and harm a developing fetus. In some cases, it may also have long-term effects on a person’s ability to get pregnant or impregnate a partner. People who are trying to have a baby should speak with a fertility specialist to discuss their options, which might include freezing eggs or sperm.
It is important to stop trying to get pregnant before chemotherapy, so a person may wish to ask a doctor about birth control options.
Tend to oral health
Many people undergoing chemotherapy experience oral health side effects, such as mouth sores. As chemotherapy weakens the immune system, it can also make preexisting oral health issues worse. Severe oral health issues may even mean that a person has to delay chemotherapy.
For this reason, it is important to see a dentist to treat cavities, abscesses, gum disease, or other issues before beginning chemotherapy.
Prevent side effects
A person can take certain steps to reduce their risk of side effects, so it is advisable to discuss side effects with the oncologist before beginning treatment.
It might be worth asking a doctor to write a prescription in advance so that there is no need to visit the pharmacy if vomiting, diarrhea, or nausea occurs.
Avoid having a busy schedule
Reactions to chemotherapy vary a lot from person to person. Some people feel fine quickly, while others need days to recover. Due to this range of responses, it is best to err on the side of caution for the first session and clear the schedule for a few days.
For instance, where possible, a person could look at getting child care and taking time off work. They may also wish to avoid making appointments or planning major activities for a few days after chemotherapy.
Ask for help
It is important to have a team of people who can help with daily life — whether this consists of family members or paid support people, such as a house cleaner or child care provider. Assembling this list before treatment means that people can offer support straight after it.
Prepare some meals
Good nutrition is important for helping the body heal, but preparing meals can be difficult when recovering from chemotherapy. People can overcome this issue by:
- prepping freezable meals ahead of treatment and then simply defrosting and reheating them afterward
- asking a friend to deliver a few meals
- signing up for a meal delivery service
Start a chemotherapy log
It is helpful to log chemotherapy sessions so that all medical records are in one place. Listing treatments alongside any side effects may help people predict side effects and identify any lifestyle strategies — such as drinking more water or eating certain foods — that reduce them.
Pack a bag for treatment sessions
Chemotherapy can take a long time, and there is not much to do during treatment. People can pack a bag with items that help them feel comfortable and give them something to do. Examples of what to take to treatment include:
- layers of clothing and a blanket
- a comfortable pillow
- headphones to listen to music or podcasts
- earplugs, in case ambient noise is bothersome
- an eye mask, if a person hopes to sleep
- an item that provides an activity, such as a journal or planner, a great book, or crossword puzzles
- a phone and a portable charger
- chewing gum
- snacks and water
In most cases, a person does not need to take specific steps to make chemotherapy safe. However, that does not mean that preparation is unimportant. Preparation can help a person feel less stressed before and during treatment, and it may help ease side effects.
Planning for the days following chemotherapy is especially important. Dealing with stressed children, a disorganized house, and an empty refrigerator can make the challenges of chemotherapy feel worse. Getting support to reduce these challenges can help protect the body and mind.
The following tips may help a person following chemotherapy:
Drink plenty of fluids
Drinking lots of fluids after chemotherapy can prevent dehydration and help the body metabolize chemotherapy drugs. People who vomit so much that they cannot keep anything down should contact their healthcare team.
Dispose of chemotherapy waste
Urine, stool, vomit, and other bodily fluids may be contaminated with chemotherapy drugs, posing an environmental hazard and potentially endangering other household members. A person can ask a doctor how to dispose of this waste.
Maintain a distance from people who are ill
As chemotherapy weakens the immune system, it
Get help with side effects
It is a good idea to log all side effects, including their severity, how long they last, and whether anything seems to make them better. A person can then share this information with a doctor. If side effects interfere with daily life, a doctor can offer advice on medications and other strategies to relieve these effects.
These tips may also help a person undergoing chemotherapy:
Address insurance issues
The bill associated with chemotherapy can be high, and some people may worry that they will not be able to afford treatment. Before beginning treatment, a person can contact their insurer to ask about coverage. If their plan does not cover a specific drug, a doctor may be able to write a letter explaining why it is medically necessary and get an exception.
A person has the right to appeal insurance company decisions. They will need to go through the insurer’s formal appeals process and appeal any denials as quickly as possible.
There is no right or wrong way to feel about chemotherapy. A person does not have to be positive, put on a brave face, or inspire others. Everyone feels differently about treatment, and it is important to honor those feelings and to find a supportive network of people who can help. These individuals may include:
- loved ones who have had cancer
- a cancer support group
- family and friends who can listen without judgment
- a therapist who specializes in treating people with cancer
Continue seeking care and asking questions
Chemotherapy is not the only treatment option for cancer. It is also important to continue seeing an oncologist. A person should talk with the doctor about all their side effects and ask questions about how to minimize them. They can also ask what effects chemotherapy should be having and what changes any lab work should be showing.
If treatment does not work or causes unmanageable side effects, a person can ask about other treatments, such as surgery, a different chemotherapy drug, alternative medications, or palliative care.
It is important to have accurate information from trustworthy sources, but that does not mean that a person can outsource cancer care decisions to anyone else. Although doctors make medical recommendations, the individual gets to make decisions about their treatment. If cancer is terminal and treatment is not helping, it is reasonable to stop chemotherapy.
Even when cancer is not terminal, it is reasonable to request an alternative treatment, a break from treatment, or a different doctor.
Chemotherapy can be hard on the body and mind, but it may offer a path to a longer life and, in some cases, to remission.
Before beginning chemotherapy, a person should discuss their expectations with a doctor and then continue seeking advice from their healthcare team during the process.
Knowing what to expect before, during, and after chemotherapy treatment can be a significant help in managing the treatment.