Chemotherapy 101: What to Expect

Chemotherapy 101: What to Expect

Sarah Kown

Chemotherapy can be an intimidating prospect for anyone getting ready for their first visit. Here's all of the basics you'll need to know, written by a former patient who's ready to show you the ropes.

When undergoing chemotherapy for the first time, there is understandably a lot of anxiety. Most of us will only know about chemotherapy through second-hand accounts, and may not know what to expect. The unknown can be one of the most intimidating things to handle, especially in the midst of an ordeal like a cancer diagnosis.

This piece will serve as a guide to chemotherapy for the uninitiated. It will also be useful for the friends and family members of those undergoing chemotherapy and help them understand what should go into a chemo care package.

Do I Have to Get Chemotherapy?

Many types of chemotherapy do come with side effects. It’s not just something that you begin right after a cancer diagnosis. You will meet with an oncologist who will answer many of your questions about the process. They will explain the risks and benefits associated with your type of chemotherapy - and they need your permission to begin.

Feel free to ask questions. Chemotherapy is not a miracle cure for cancer. Different cancers will need different chemotherapies, which will come with their own chance of success and their own side effects. It is better to get the best picture of what you can expect before chemotherapy even begins, to avoid feeling disappointed or surprised.

Not All Chemotherapy is the Same

The first thing to understand about chemotherapy is that your preconceived notions about what it entails could be wrong. There are many types of chemotherapy, and each might entail different things.

Among the types of chemotherapy, there are two main distinctions. Curative chemotherapy is a treatment used with the intent of removing cancer itself. Palliative chemotherapy refers to treatments used to try and reduce the symptoms of cancer, or prolong life.

Within these two types of chemotherapy, there may be different kinds of drugs used. These are a few of the different types of medications:

  1. Alkylating agents target the DNA of cancer and try to kill cancer cells at different stages of the cell life cycle.
  2. Antimetabolites try to “trick” cancer cells by mimicking proteins that the cancer cells need to survive - the cancer cells will take in the antimetabolites but gain no benefit, eventually dying off.
  3. Plant alkaloids don’t kill cancer cells outright but try to halt their growth and reproduction.

How the chemotherapy is administered may vary, and can change over the course of treatment. Generally, these treatments will be given intravenously, though where the drugs will be delivered depends on the duration of the treatment and the kind of drug. However, sometimes the doctors will prescribe pills for chemotherapy, particularly if the cancer is located in multiple areas of the body. For some skin cancers, there may even be topically administered chemotherapy.

Not All Chemotherapies Have the Same Schedule

The amount of time needed for a chemotherapy treatment will depend on the drugs being used. A chemotherapy session can last as short as half an hour, or as long as four to six hours. The whole length of chemo treatment can last from between 3 to 6 months. Often, chemotherapy will be “cycled” - you will be on chemotherapy for 2 to 6 weeks, and then given a rest. The number of chemotherapy treatments in a single cycle can vary as well. In some cases, you can leave the hospital or medical center right after chemotherapy, while in other cases you may need to stay overnight. It’s always best to ask your doctor what kind of chemotherapy types you can expect so you don’t get surprised - your oncologist should go over this with you. If you have a family member undergoing longer forms of chemotherapy, a chemo care package can help.

What are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

There are many potential side effects of chemotherapy, which will depend on the types of chemotherapy that you are receiving. Side effects can generally be divided into short-term side effects (which will come and go with the chemotherapy) and long-term side effects (permanent effects of getting chemotherapy).

Short-term side effects can include stomach issues as your body reacts to the drugs being used. These could include nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. Hair loss is synonymous with chemotherapy. You should ask your oncologist beforehand if hair loss is something to be worried about so that you can pre-plan shaving and getting a wig or head wrap if you desire.

The drugs can also weaken your immune system somewhat, and you could develop a fever and bruise and bleed easier. There may also be simple discomfort and pain. Thankfully, many of these side effects can be treated and will subside when treatment ends.

Many treatments will also just leave you feeling exhausted. It’s very useful to have someone to take you to and from chemotherapy - there are charities that will offer you chemotherapy transportation if you can’t find it yourself or you can add ride credit from Uber to your WishList.

Long-term effects are rare, but they do happen. The drugs are powerful and can do some permanent damage to parts of your body. This could include damage to the kidney, lungs, nerves, hands and feet, or heart, creating their own set of problems. These risks will be explained to you by your oncologist and must be measured against the risks of cancer itself.

What to Bring to Chemotherapy

Those who have had experience with chemotherapy recommend that you get a “chemo bag” ready for your sessions, so you are always prepared with anything you might need for the treatment. What exactly you’ll need depends on the types of chemotherapy you’ll be undergoing, but there are a few things to consider, namely:

  • Comfort: Hospitals can be cold, and the injection of drugs can also leave you feeling chilled. The hospital bed may not be as comfortable as you like either. Cozy blankets and pillows are always a plus.
  • Food: Sometimes chemo can last for a while, so healthy snacks are great to have on hand. You may find it difficult to eat due to nausea. In this case, it can be good to bring anti-nausea foods, such as saltine crackers or soups. A water bottle is always a must so that you can stay hydrated throughout the day.
  • Entertainment: You’ll want some way to avoid becoming bored during chemotherapy if it’s a long-lasting process. Tablets, headphones, and books are all good things to bring along. Many patients also like to keep a “cancer journal” to record their journey through chemo and show them how far they have progressed.
  • Some Love: Chemo care packages prepared by friends or loved ones can really brighten the mood. They could contain games, snacks, or just words of encouragement. A little bit of care goes a long way.

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Last activity by Lucy Gidion

Katherine Murphy
This is great info if you're just starting chemo!
Lucy Gidion
I always kept a special bag for my chemo stuff so I knew I wouldn't be forgetting anything! I made it one I loved with bright and fun colors to make my mood a little happier.

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