For many people – not all – the chemotherapy regimen is an ordeal, and the day of your first treatment can be scary. Mostly, it can be tiring, but it all depends on your cancer and your prescribed chemo drugs.
Lisa Silva is a Sacramento-area registered nurse with extensive experience in oncology and infusion therapy. She is also a breast cancer survivor. Michael Evans is a retired hospital executive and cancer survivor (mixed large and small cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma).
In their professional and personal lives, Lisa and Michael have experienced chemotherapy from both sides of the IV, so to speak. Based on their guidance and advice, here are five things to help you prepare for and get through your first (and subsequent) chemo treatments.
1. Information and organization
The first treatment could last as long as a full day. Your doctor and medical team will have told you what to expect, but don’t worry if you didn’t take it all in. The treatment nurse will review the procedure and your treatment schedule. Ask the scheduler to print out a calendar to help keep you organized. At your pre-treatment appointments, ask someone to accompany you (see 2. Support) to help you remember questions and responses and to take notes.
Many chemo patients find it comforting and helpful to have a friend or family member there. If no one you know can invest the time, please contact Albie Aware. A compassionate and knowledgeable volunteer may be able to help you. You may make a new best friend.
It is better if the same person can consistently accompany you. You may not absorb or remember all the new information coming at you and it helps to have someone else to listen and take notes. Also, you may find it comforting to have someone there, especially for the first treatment. Be sure that they bring whatever they need to help pass the time if you find you are not up to conversing or if you need to nap. As Lisa and Michael say, “This is a tired like you probably have not experienced before.”
Make sure you have eaten prior to your treatment. It helps to keep your stomach settled. You may have to experiment with foods that agree with you. Avoid fatty and fried foods, and since your immune system will be compromised, avoid raw or undercooked foods. The American Cancer Society recommends a diet of plant-based, whole-grain foods. There is a great deal of information about chemo and food on the internet, including these tips found on breastcancer.org.
During your treatment, your taste buds will be affected and you may gravitate toward spicy foods that you can actually taste. Ice cream is okay, but coffee and red meat may not agree with you. There is a British product, McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, you may like. If necessary, talk with your doctor about anti-nausea drugs. Very important – stay hydrated while you are on a chemotherapy regimen.
4. What to bring
You will have a lot of time to think while receiving chemotherapy. Bring a notebook to record your thoughts, questions, concerns, or your shopping list. The fog of “chemo brain” is real – use notes and a calendar to keep yourself organized.
Bring books and magazines. Work on puzzles. Watch a video on your laptop. Listen to music, but use earphones so you don’t disturb others. Bring cards or a game you can play with your support person. Maybe this is a good time to knit that sweater.
Wear loose, comfortable clothes. Pre-chemo drugs can make you sleepy, so you will want clothing for relaxing or napping. Bring soft socks and extra layers in case you get chilled. Your facility may provide warm blankets, but don’t hesitate to bring your own blanket and pillow.
Bonus tips from two who have been there...
Keep your eye on the prize. Your life will be dictated by treatment schedules and your response to side effects. Just remember that you are experiencing relatively short-term pain for long-term gain.
Take it one treatment at a time.
Your body will be enduring a lot during chemo – if you need to nap, do it. Rest is essential for your physical and emotional wellbeing. Don’t let cancer define who you are. Take time away from thinking about it. Exercise. Take walks. Engage with your family and friends just as you did before your diagnosis.
Don’t be stubborn. Accept help from your family and friends. Let them cook meals, go shopping, drive you to appointments or to your favorite ice cream parlor, and listen to you when you need to vent.
You’ve got this!