Chemotherapy uses medicine to either kill the cancer cells or stop them from dividing. It’s usually given through a needle in a vein (intravenously), but there are oral chemotherapy drugs as well. Chemotherapy affects any cells in the body that are dividing rapidly. These include cancer cells, but also cells in the blood, digestive system and cells related to hair and nail growth. That’s why it can cause side effects in those areas and systems of the body. Because of its wide-ranging effects, chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. This gives the body a chance to recover from one cycle before getting another. 

Chemotherapy is probably the most feared cancer treatment because the side effects are so visible (most notably hair loss). Knowing what to expect ahead of time can lower anxieties significantly. It can also help you and your loved one plan ways to cope even before treatment starts.

Logistics during chemotherapy include getting to and from the medical oncology clinic, spending a half-day or even a full day at the clinic, and, as with radiation therapy, incorporating this new activity into both of your lives. Even if your loved one chooses to go to chemotherapy treatments alone, life at home may change as his or her energy declines, sleep patterns change, and appetite and exercise tolerance likely decline. Interestingly, it is not uncommon for caregivers to also report that they notice a change in their level of energy, mood, sleep patterns, appetite and exercise tolerance. 

Recognizing that cancer affects the survivor’s entire support system is important. Communicating with your loved one about how you can both best get the support you need and support each other during this stressful time is crucial.

Chemotherapy & Caregiving 

During and after chemotherapy your loved one will most likely feel weak and tired and might need a lot of attention and care. This can be challenging for both of you. Some ways to help during chemotherapy: 

  • Talk about what your loved one needs and how much help you can offer (recognize your potential and your limits). 
  • Encourage your loved one to discuss any side effects and try available remedies until he or she finds one that works. 
  • Make sure he or she gets plenty of rest. 
  • Hydration and good nutrition are very important to managing side effects during chemotherapy. A registered dietitian might be a useful resource. 
  • If your loved one feels okay, encourage him or her to take walks to regain energy. 
  • Offer to take your loved one to and from appointments, or find someone else who can. 
  • Help with household chores, childcare, and other tasks. Again, find out what 
    would be most helpful. 
  • Learn when to call the doctor with a problem, and when you shouldn’t worry.

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