First Chemotherapy Treatment—What to Expect
We know your first chemo treatment can be a scary experience, to say the least, so we gathered some information to help you. Treatments vary, but these are some basics you can expect. Knowledge makes us strong, so take what you can use, breathe deep, and remember—you can do this.
Note: Since chemotherapy is usually given through infusions, that’s what we’ll talk about here. Keep in mind that there are other types of treatment, including chemotherapy creams, drugs given in certain areas of the body, pills, shots, and more. Check with your doctor for more information.
- Blood Test. Before treatment, you’ll have a blood test to determine your white-blood-cell count. Since chemo depletes white-blood cells, doctors want to be sure your count can handle it.
- Drug Preparation. Once your blood tests are approved, physicians prepare the drugs for administration. This can take some time—often a few hours.
- Eat. Most doctors recommend you eat normally, according to your regular schedule. The center or hospital will probably have food, but depending on what’s on the menu, you may want to bring your own snacks, perhaps your own lunch. Go easy on your stomach, and avoid fried foods, fats and sugars. A cooler is super handy, as you can take your favorite drinks, ice packs (see below), and favorite foods. Your first treatment can be an all-day affair, so go prepared.
- Drink. Marisa Weiss, M.D., president and founder of breastcancer.org, says before, during, and after your treatment, “keep up your fluid balance. Make sure you keep drinking before and after your treatment. Keep lots of drinks around that you enjoy, but not ones that are full of sugar.”
- Listen. To help keep yourself calm during the wait, you may want to bring along an iPod or something similar. Dr. Eva Selhub (author of The Love Response) suggests meditation CDs both before and during treatment. Studies have shown they can help reduce side effects. You may want to bring a book as well, notebook computer, or something to write on. Journaling or writing about your feelings and experiences helps you deal with them and is very therapeutic.
- The Room. When they’re ready for you, they’ll take you into the “chemo room.” First-timers usually get their own private room, but not always. (Veterans are more likely to share one with other patients.) You may be able to request where you want to sit. The nurse may show you around, give you a plethora of information materials, and then she’ll start your IV, usually through a vein in your hand or arm, sometimes through a “port,” which is a medical appliance installed just under the skin through which drugs can be injected.
- The Drugs. Once your IV is set to go, the nurse will start the drip. You may receive some pre-medications, like anti-nausea drugs, to help reduce side effects. Then the oncologist will administer the chemo drugs. These drugs are typically toxic to the skin, so the nurse may wear protective clothing. The entire treatment can take 30 minutes to several hours. Pillows, blankets, and other comforting things from home can help make waiting more bearable.
- Ice. You may want to take some frozen vegetables or ice packs for your fingers—they may help reduce nail damage from the drugs. Ice chips in your mouth may also help reduce mouth sores.
- Any Pain? The treatment itself is usually not painful.
- Side Effects? These vary from person to person. Many people experience few side effects. Assuming the best outcome is better than imagining misery. (Click here for more info on possible chemotherapy side effects.)
- Drive home. Most doctors recommend you don’t drive yourself. You could be drowsy from pre-medications or from the experience itself.
If you’ve experienced chemotherapy, please help our first timers by sharing your experiences.
Photo courtesy of Dyxie via Flickr.com.