Know Before You Go: Chemotherapy

Find out what to expect before, during and after treatment.

Medically reviewed in June 2022

Treatment for cancer can be as daunting as the diagnosis itself because of the unpleasant side effects associated with chemotherapy. But knowing what to expect during and after chemo, and being prepared for treatment, can help ease your mind and strengthen your resolve to get better.

We spoke with Jennifer Oglesby, RN, OCN, an oncology nurse navigator with Regional Medical Center of San Jose in California, to learn more about what happens during chemotherapy, and how to ready yourself for treatment.

How chemotherapy works

Chemotherapy is an intravenous (IV), injected or oral medication primarily used to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy not only kills cancer cells, but healthy cells too, which is what causes some of the side effects you hear about, like nausea, vomiting, fatigue and hair loss.

The type of chemotherapy given and the duration of treatment depend on the type of cancer you have, says Oglesby, and what the doctor feels is the best option for you. Most people get chemotherapy through an IV or injection at the hospital or outpatient facility over the course of weeks or months.

Preparing for your first visit

The first chemotherapy treatment can be overwhelming and scary. But bringing someone along to keep you company, help you take notes and digest all the new information can be a big help, says Oglesby.

Also, it’s important to stay organized. Oglesby suggests using a binder and calendar to keep track of your paperwork and appointments, including chemotherapy, blood tests, radiation and potential surgeries.

What to bring to treatment

Wear comfortable clothes, and shirts with short sleeves or buttons that allow easy access for the IV.

Also, pack a bag that includes:

  • Water and healthy snacks. “One of the most important things during chemo is to keep yourself as hydrated as possible,” says Oglesby. Water is best for preparing your body for the dehydrating effects of chemo. It’s also important to eat nutrient-dense foods to keep your energy up and protect against infection, since chemotherapy lowers your immunity. Ask your healthcare team what foods are okay to have during your treatment.
  • Something to do. Treatment may take several hours so you’ll want to have something to do while you pass the time. Bring books and magazines to read, headphones and music to listen to or a tablet for watching movies.
  • Blanket and a travel pillow. Treatment rooms can feel cold, and IV fluids can make the cold sensation worse, so bring along a blanket to stay warm and a pillow for added comfort.

Chemotherapy side effects

  • Fatigue. “About 90% of patients experience fatigue,” says Oglesby. If you’re suffering from fatigue, she recommends listening to your body. “Rest when you’re tired, but if you can, try to do things and live life as normally as possible.” You can also ask your healthcare team about other ways to fight fatigue.
  • Nausea. In most cases, you’ll be given information from your doctor or nurse about how to prevent nausea. But in general, Oglesby suggests trying to eat small meals throughout the day, instead of three big ones. And stay away from spicy, fatty or greasy foods. You’ll also be prescribed medication that can help.
  • Hair Loss. This can be one of the most devastating side effects of chemo, says Oglesby. “Many patients have ‘shave their head parties,’ with friends and family shaving their heads in support of their loved one going through treatment,” she says. Also, the American Cancer Society offers classes such as, ‘Look Good Feel Better,’ where a licensed beauty professional gives tips on how to apply make-up, care for your skin and use wigs and/or hairpieces while undergoing chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy can do a number on your body’s ability to fight infections, too, and neutropenia, a condition marked by low white blood cells, may occur. Your healthcare team will give you information during your first visit on what to do if this happens, but it’s important to contact your doctor right away if you run a fever.

“It’s also important after… treatment that you wash your hands more frequently, and stay away from friends and family that may potentially be sick,” says Oglesby. 

“This is especially crucial in the 7-14 days after treatment, when you’re more susceptible to infection.”

How friends and family can help

Going through chemotherapy can be trying, but enlisting the help of friends and family can make it much easier. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or take it when it’s offered.

When your friends and family ask what they can do, suggest they bring over meals, keep you company or help with the kids or housework.

Oglesby’s advice: “Just be there for them. Be a shoulder to cry on and a person to talk to. ”

And most importantly hold off on the all-too-familiar cancer horror stories.

“Patients are scared enough as it is. So you should try and be more positive, instead of scaring them further,” she says. “People have been cured of cancer, and gone on to live healthy lives, and I think that’s important to stress.”

See More from Jennifer Oglesby:

How should I prepare for chemotherapy?
How does chemotherapy work?
What are the possible side effects of chemotherapy?

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