For some people, the prospect of getting chemotherapy can be almost as scary as cancer itself. But knowing what to expect and how to prepare can both relieve fears and make the whole experience a little easier.
Before you start treatment, your oncologist will talk to you about the drugs you’ll receive and the duration of your treatment. Both will depend on your diagnosis, including both the type and stage of your cancer.
For some types of cancer, including lung cancer, patients get two or three different chemotherapy drugs in combination. Often that is a strategy to help overcome drug resistance, said Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers oncologist Patrick Moran, MD.
“We do have more options for different treatments now,” Moran said. “It used to be that if one cycle of chemotherapy didn’t work, there was nothing else we could try. Now we have more options.”
Typically, chemotherapy is given through an IV into the veins. But for a growing number of patients, chemotherapy medications that can be taken orally at home are available. The emerging class of drugs known as immunotherapies, for example, are largely oral medications.
Combating Chemotherapy Side Effects
Chemotherapy is notorious for sometimes unpleasant side effects. But, Moran said, researchers continue to look for ways to make treatments less toxic, and easier on the patients who need them.
Your oncologist will talk to you about common side effects, but each patient is different, so it is difficult to predict what any individual will experience. “It’s surprising — a big strapping 45 year-old might do worse than somebody who’s 72,” Moran says.
Some of the most common side effects of chemotherapy include fatigue, tingling in fingers and toes, and feelings of nausea, Moran said.
The most notorious side effects of chemotherapy, nausea and hair loss, are worse in reputation than in reality, Moran says. Advances in anti-nausea medications have significantly reduced nausea in most patients. “The idea of throwing up violently for days on end – I can’t say it never happens but it’s much more rare than it once was. That image got scarred into the urban legend of chemotherapy, but that’s just not what we often see,” he says.
Likewise, the hair loss widely depicted as an expected part of chemotherapy, doesn’t happen in all cases, Moran says.
Because chemotherapies can suppress your immune system, your medical care team will likely monitor your blood counts.
Preparing for Chemotherapy
Before your IV chemotherapy starts, you will:
- Meet the nurse or other health professionals who will give it
- Have a short physical exam to check your blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and temperature
- Have your height and weight measured to find the right dose
- Have an IV tube put in your arm
- Have a blood sample taken
And keep in mind: as tough as chemotherapy may be on you, it’s even tougher on your cancer.
Tips for Coping with Chemotherapy
- Your treatment may take several hours, so bring books, electronic devices, or knitting to help pass the time
- Dress comfortably
- Bring a family member or caregiver, at least to the first treatment
- Drink plenty of fluids. This helps the medication move through your body
- Chemotherapy can weaken your immune system, so avoid contact with people who are ill