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Your Cancer Guide

Preparing for Chemotherapy

Planning ahead will help you and your family cope better with treatment. By Hester Hill Schnipper

Most new cancer patients are more frightened by the prospect of chemotherapy than by any other part of treatment. We have all experienced too many movies or books in which the hero was devastated by chemo. Here’s the important thing to know: Times have changed. I remember the days when we gave patients buckets as they left the infusion area, knowing they wouldn’t make 
it home before getting sick. Now, most people go through months of 
chemotherapy without vomiting, and some are never nauseous.

Hester Hill Schnipper
​Hester Hill Schnipper | Photo courtesy of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
But even though you are likely to feel relatively well most days, there will be some when you are fatigued, distressed or unwell. Here are some strategies to prepare yourself and your household for the months of chemotherapy ahead.
1) Talk with your doctor about the specific chemo drugs you will receive and their side effects, which can vary enormously depending on the medication. Ask how you might manage the effects.
2) Hair loss is one of the most distressing side effects for many women. If you will be losing your hair, decide in advance when you want to cut it and how you want to cover your head. Have a wig, hats or scarves at home before you are likely to need them. (See the Spring 2013 issue of Cancer Today for more tips on hair loss.)
3) Cook ahead and freeze portion-sized meals. Think comfort food: soups, macaroni and cheese, or other pasta dishes you enjoy.
4) Buy a range of beverages. It will be important to drink a lot of fluids, and you will want a choice. Ginger, mint or chamomile teas may be soothing; plain water may have a metallic taste (carbonated water mixed with a little juice may go down easier).
5) Consider treating yourself to a new set of soft sheets. Naps will be even nicer.
6) Buy a comfortable bathrobe or set of sweats 
to wear on the days you feel less well.
7) Another good investment, if feasible: a tablet reader or electronic notepad such as a Kindle or an iPad. These are portable, light and easy to carry to appointments.
8) Schedule small rewards for yourself a day or two after each treatment.
9) Do not plan to complete any projects while you are home. No one ever organized decades of photographs or cleaned out the attic during chemotherapy.
10) Eliminate unnecessary tasks. You are excused from sending holiday cards and writing most thank-you notes.
11) If there are annual jobs that you can do ahead of time, do them.
12) Assign responsibilities to your children so that they feel helpful and included. Even little ones can set the table, bring you a glass of water or rub your back. Older children can rake leaves, do laundry or make simple meals.
13) Talk with your spouse or partner about allocating responsibilities. This is difficult but necessary. You will not be up to contributing your usual share, and he or she will need to do more.
14) Recognize that different friends are going to be helpful in different ways. Play to their strengths.
15) Accept all offers of assistance and learn how to ask for help. Sign up for one of the online 
support networks ( or so that your friends can easily volunteer to help.
HESTER HILL SCHNIPPER, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor and the chief of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She also manages an online breast cancer support group on the hospital’s website.


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