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How to Prepare for Chemo: The Countdown, Treatment, Aftermath and the Recovery

Updated on April 8, 2019
vivakits profile image

Alicia is a dental hygienist of 12 years and counting. She and her husband launched Viva Kits, creating care packages for cancer patients.

Where to Start?

Let's be honest.

You're certainly feeling intimidated, you're most likely terrified. You've got a thousand new worries, thoughts and a million questions. Here we remove the mystery, the misunderstandings and the myths that surround chemotherapy treatment.

This article is to help you get off on the right foot.

An estimated 206,200 new cases of cancer occurred in Canada in 2017.

— Canadian Cancer Society

The Countdown

We won't sugar coat it, chemotherapy is a tough, trialing time, while tackling the cancer cells chemo also hits your healthy cells hard.

You need to be prepared. Here's how you can help your future self, before treatment begins.

An organized experience is better than a chaotic one, plan ahead as much as you can handle. If you can recruit some help, assign them some research as well and share the task. One of the big goals is to have the materials and products you will need along the way available at hand and to do what you can to give your body and mind the tools to remain strong.

1. Book in with your Dentist and Dental Hygienist.

Book with your Dental professional before your chemo treatments start, then work with your Medical team to decide frequency of Dental visits once treatment has begun.
Book with your Dental professional before your chemo treatments start, then work with your Medical team to decide frequency of Dental visits once treatment has begun.

Chemo treatments can result in oral side effects, and a dental check-up 1 month before starting treatment can be essential for preventing painful mouth problems, such as sores, infections and bleeding.

Carrying an abscess, a tooth infection, a source of daily bleeding - like inflamed gums - is a constant, unnecessary immunological battle that may be easily prevented. It's like swimming with a rock tied to your foot. You move along, but much slower.

Work with your Hygienist and Dentist to untie that rock. This will help you stay on - and stay stronger - through the chemo treatment plan.

Ask your hygienist:

- for ways to avoid oral sores and how to soothe them if they do occur

- how to avoid dry mouth

- how to care for your mouth before and after treatment.

Avoid foods and drink that can irritate your mouth, hard crunchy foods, spicy or too hot. Avoid tobacco and alcoholic beverages.

You should also be aware that if serious oral side effects set in, your cancer treatment may be delayed or even stopped altogether.

Call your healthcare provider if your mouth begins to hurt.

Arrange, with your oncologists recommendation, to see your dental team every 3 months approx.

Most people are aware of common side effects of cancer treatment like nausea and hair loss. But many don't realize that most people treated for cancer develop problems in the mouth. These problems can make it hard to eat, talk, and swallow. This may interfere with cancer treatment and lessen quality of life.

Head and neck radiation and chemotherapy can cause mouth problems that range from dry mouth to life-threatening infections.

— National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

2. Prepare a bag for appointments and put together an at-home care kit for recovery.

From prepping appropriate food ahead of appointments to finding nutritional treats that still taste great with metal-mouth. Then finding products that can avoid causing nausea like unscented shower care products and lotions, you're going to need plenty of unique items close at hand during this journey.

Read our Cancer Care Gift Package Ideas for a comprehensive list of items to make the chemo appointments and recovery smoother.

Plan ahead for side effects. Get your home ready for rest and recuperation upon your arrival.

You should speak with your doctor about which side effects could be more expected than others, given your specific treatment plan.

3. Add a Second Brain to Yours.

A ride to and from appointments, a second set of ears to remember what the doctor has planned, somebody to talk to during treatment...etc.
A ride to and from appointments, a second set of ears to remember what the doctor has planned, somebody to talk to during treatment...etc.

When sitting at the Doctors office, your mind will most likely spread thinly across 5 different topics even though you know that the conversation is the only thing you should focus on. With a friend ready with questions and taking notes, you will walk away with more clarity.

Medical appointments can be stressful. That stress causes most peoples retention capacity to dive. No matter how smart, fast, charming or OCD you are, there are details in your appointments with your medical team that you will miss. Take note of everything; who the doctors are, who replaces them, who they answer to. It makes it easier to direct questions later on.

I have a pretty good retention capacity but it is not perfect, having someone else with me taking notes while I lead the conversation is critical to recalling what was said later on. Unfortunately, not all procedures, requirements, restrictions etc are well documented for you. Lots has to be done by yourself after the appointment.

Talking about brain lag, it's not a bad idea to have a driver buddy if you can. Your state of mind and physical condition will influence your driving ability to and from appointments.

If you are on your own for appointments, consider taxi's.

There are many tips and medications for managing the side-effect of cancer treatment and your provider can help you determine what works best for you.

— oncolink

The Treatment

Your first treatment will likely involve paperwork upon arrival, with some blood taken before treatment begins (your blood may also alter the exact plan and mix of medication). For this day and every treatment day following you should dress in comfortable clothes, pack a snack and water and be prepared to wait around. When the time comes to eventually go home you'll probably feel exhausted, overwhelmed, emotional and ecstatic all at once. And once home, you should follow instructions for your meds to the letter - take time out, rest, stay hydrated and eat.

1. How do you feel while having a chemotherapy treatment?

Intravenous chemo may feel similar to donating blood. You may have a cannula (a tube) inserted into your hand or arm, with a traditional injection to begin this process.

Alternatively your doctor may recommend that you have a device (such as a catheter, port or pump) inserted into your chest. When and what side-effects you feel depends on the exact drugs used. Dress comfortably to expect chills or hot flashes.

While some can cause nausea and vomiting following a few hours and last for a short while, others can cause them to last for a few days. Most mention that during the appointment they feel light headed and energetic.

With a strong recommendation not to drive after your appointments.

2. Should you take someone with you?

It's not essential that someone accompanies you to your chemo appointments, but it is advised. A friend or family member can support you and help the time pass, while also lending an extra brain for the extensive information you're given during your first appointment (they may also think of questions you haven't).

It's very unlikely any procedure will take place during your first appointment, so you may not need someone to drive you home. Confirm with your doctor.

3. How long do chemo appointments last?

The length and frequency of your treatment depends on your treatment plan, with appointments ranging from half-hour slots to between three and four hours or overnight.

Your first visit will likely last between one and two hours, as it involves filling out paperwork, a physical examination and a consultation.

Expect lots of waiting.

Most chemo treatment cycles can range from 2 to 6 weeks. The amount of treatments in this cycle time depends on the drugs given.

The Immediate Aftermath

Keeping a chemotherapy side effect diary can help you remember what treatment you've had, when and what side effects you've encountered (as well as noting what you did to relieve them to know what works best for you during what time of the day).

You may also want to explore complementary therapies, such as meditation, relaxation, massage and counselling, each of which can reduce stress and anxiety.

You will begin to create a new routine that you can rely on. One step at a time.

1. What are the possible side-effects of chemo?

As reported by Web MD and The American Cancer Society, common side effects of chemo include:

- Fatigue, Nausea, Bowel and bladder problems (including constipation and diarrhea)

- Mouth, tongue, and throat problems such as sores, pain, dry mouth and taste changes

- Nerve and muscle problems such as numbness, tingling, and pain

- 'Chemo brain' affecting concentration and focus

- Mood changes

- Weight changes

- Easy bruising and bleeding

- Skin dryness and nail damage

- Anemia (low red blood cell counts)

- Hair loss

- Infections

Longer-lasting and less common side effects can include:

- Sexual and fertility issues

- Nerve damage

Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about which side effects are most common with your chemo, how long they might last, how bad they might be, and when you should call the doctor's office about them.

— The American Cancer Society

2. Hair

Not everyone's hair falls out during chemo treatment, while some are lucky enough to hold onto every last strand, others may lose their hair from every part of their body.

If your hair is going to fall out, it'll do so within 2 to 3 weeks, and will regrow a while after treatment ceases. If your hair is going to fall out, it usually does prior to your 2nd cycle of treatments so be prepared with head coverings. Consider head coverings that are soft and warm.

Some patients like to take control and shave their heads when they notice the hair beginning to fall out. If you decide to shave your head prior to losing your hair it is recommended to use electric trimmers or clippers to protect the scalp from cuts and irritations. Shaving your head prior to complete hair loss can help to avoid the stress of losing hair.

Henna crowns are a beautiful way to cope with hair loss.
Henna crowns are a beautiful way to cope with hair loss.

The Recovery After Chemo Cycles End

Recovery from chemo can take a year or more, with patients often doing battle with symptoms such as fatigue, peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage), joint pain, bowel issues and oral yeast infections. But no 2 people are alike, so you may experience changes that are very different. Talk to your medical professionals about potential long-term side-effects.

From one survivor...

Remember, when the going gets tough, take a really deep breath and trust that you will know exactly what to do. You're smart and your intuition is rock solid. You've got what it takes to live an incredible life. Don't wait. OK?

1. Find the best MDs.

2. Just juice it!

3. Eat more plants.

4. Beauty 911.

5. Take ten minutes to move.

6. Take care of your mind.

7. Adopt a furry friend.

8. Create a new tribe.

9. Unconditional acceptance.

10. Go for it.

You Are Not Alone

Above all else, no matter the stage of your chemo journey, know this - you are not alone! Reach out to those you need to, when you need to. Whether this be a fellow chemo patient online or your nearest and dearest. You can do this, you will do this, and you'll realize that you are stronger than you ever knew.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2019 Alicia

What tips and tricks have you discovered?

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    • vivakits profile imageAUTHOR


      6 months ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Thank you Lorna Lamon for writing. I'm glad the information was helpful to you. I wish you well.

    • Lorna Lamon profile image

      Lorna Lamon 

      6 months ago

      This is a really informative article with lots of very valid points and tips. Thank you for sharing.


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