What can I expect from chemotherapy?

When you arrive at the hospital for chemotherapy

Often, you will have a blood test first, and your doctors must wait for the result to check that your blood count is okay before they can give you the treatment.

You will be checked by the cancer nurse or doctor to make sure you have no problems, and are able to have treatment that day.

Does chemotherapy hurt?

No, not usually. If you have a drip (IV infusion), you’ll feel a brief sting as the needle goes in, but then the pain should stop. However, if the pain continues, or starts during the infusion, let the cancer nurse know immediately.

Will I have to stay in hospital?

Most people have their treatment as an outpatient. Usually you have to spend a few hours at the hospital for each treatment. It’s a good idea to bring a book or something to listen to, or a friend or relative to talk to.

Occasionally, some people stay in hospital overnight or longer, depending on the treatment.

Photographer: Louise Goossens.

Above: A man having chemotherapy treatment via a pump.

If you live a long way from the hospital you will probably be able to stay free of charge, or at low cost, at a comfortable hostel or motel. Family members can stay (at a reduced rate) in some hostels. Contact your regional Cancer Centre to find out about accommodation.

Can I keep working?

Most people keep working during their treatment and arrange time off to go to hospital for each treatment. Some people can work part time instead of full time, while others take a few days off around each treatment. Others take an extended break for the whole course of the treatment. Talk to your employer, family, and friends and work out what suits you. Try not to take on too much. You may wish to talk to the hospital social worker for information on benefits (see the section titled ‘Financial assistance’ in ‘Support’ for more details) or call Work and Income on 0800 559 009.

What about other activities?

Do only what you feel comfortable doing. You may find you can go on with your normal life, or that you have to take things much easier. The important thing is to look after yourself during chemotherapy so that your body is strong enough to cope with the drugs. Do not do anything you do not need to do. Put your own needs and wishes first.

What about my other medications?

Before you start chemotherapy, be sure to give your cancer doctor a list of all the medications you are taking, including occasional Panadol, aspirins, anti-inflammatories (such as Nurofen), vitamins, or treatments from, for example, herbalists, naturopaths, or homeopaths (see ‘Complementary and alternative therapies’ in the ‘Support’ section).

If you want to take any new medications (including complementary medicines) while having chemotherapy, ask your cancer doctor about these before you begin taking them. Some chemotherapy drugs do not mix well with other medicines.

Can I drink alcohol?

It is usually fine to drink a little alcohol during treatment, but check with your cancer doctor first - some chemotherapy drugs do not mix well with alcohol.

Can I drive?

You’ll probably find it best to get someone to drive you to and from hospital for the first treatment. If you feel okay to drive after your first treatment, you’ll probably be fine to do so on following appointments.

Does chemotherapy cause cancer?

Some people who have chemotherapy may get another form of cancer much later in life. However, this rarely happens, and it is much more likely that your treatment will either cure you or control your cancer. If this question concerns you, talk it over with your specialist.

How will I know my treatment is working?

You may be able to tell if your treatment is working by improvement in your symptoms. Sometimes only your cancer doctors can tell you whether the chemotherapy is working. They do this by talking to you, examining you, and carrying out blood tests and scans. Sometimes it is necessary to have many tests during treatment to see how the treatment is working. The effectiveness of the treatment has nothing to do with how many side-effects you get.

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