Chemotherapy can be scary. First, the fact that you have cancer is frightening, and chemotherapy is known mainly for its unpleasant side effects. Most people have heard stories of (or experienced) people losing hair, experiencing extreme nausea and fatigue, and other side effects. Part of the fear comes from the unknown. Because everyone responds to chemotherapy differently, it is difficult to know just what to expect.
What is Chemotherapy?
According to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, “chemotherapy is a medication or a combination of medications prescribed to kill cancer cells which may also kill healthy cells. These medications are often called anti-cancer drugs.” Different types of chemotherapy include:
- Intravenous (IV): administered through a catheter tube in the vein, typically placed in the arm. Sometimes, your doctor may recommend having an IV infusion device. The two most common are PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) lines and Ports. Both of these devices stay in longer than an IV catheter placed in your vein at the time of your infusion visit.
- Orally: taken by mouth as pills, capsules or liquids that you swallow.
- Intracavitary: given directly into a body area.
- Topically: placed on the skin where it is absorbed.
- Intra-arterial (IA): given directly into an artery.
How to Prepare for Infusion Chemotherapy
IV chemotherapy is also called infusion therapy. The drugs are infused into the body. The University of Michigan’s guide to infusion chemotherapy recommends the follow ways to prepare for chemotherapy:
- Understand the kind of cancer you have,the drugs you are being given, and how they work. It can be helpful to have a caregiver or family member partner to help you sort through this information, and as treatment progresses that person can then help you confirm whether your experience is normal or whether you should contact your physician.
- Understand the side effects. It can be helpful to know in advance what side effects might accompany your treatment. For example, not all chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss, but if yours does, it can be helpful to plan ahead for how you wish to deal with it.
- Prepare your home. Depending on the severity of your fatigue after chemotherapy, it’s a good idea to have any food, clothing, medical supplies or other products you might need in your home prior to treatment.
- See your dentist. Because some chemotherapy drug side effects include sores in the mouth and throat, it is recommended that patients get a dental exam prior to initiating treatment. It is important to know in advance that your mouth and teeth are otherwise healthy, and to complete any immediately needed dental work prior to treatment.
- Expect the unexpected. While this is easier said than done, it is important to be able to be flexible when undergoing chemotherapy. You may have unexpected side effects while expected side effects may not materialize. You may have set ideas about how active you can be during treatment, and be frustrated when those activities aren’t possible. Chemotherapy sessions can be long, and can be made longer when other patients require additional attention.
- Welcome help from others. Most of us are used to being independent and self-supporting. This should not be your expectation during chemotherapy. Pressure to do everything you need for yourself can add fatigue and stress can exacerbate your illness. Let people help you with meals, laundry, shopping, transportation. It can be hard to learn how to allow others to help you, but it will be easier if you understand how eager your friends and family are to show you their support with concrete actions.
- Get support. In addition to accepting help with physical needs, look for cancer support groups and services. People who are going through a similar process can be great sources of support, and support groups can also give you the satisfaction of helping others.
Work With Your Team
Your oncology team can be an invaluable guide to how to get through chemotherapy as successfully as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or to express your concerns, fears, expectations and any special needs you have. Make sure you understand the schedule for your treatment and remove any schedule conflicts in advance.