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What You Can Expect On Your First Day of Chemotherapy

October 20, 2011
By Guest Blogger
|29Comments|


I remember my first chemotherapy treatment like it was yesterday. I was only 16 years old, and I’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’d had surgery to remove a lump on my neck, and chemo was the next step. Walking into that oncology office for the first time, I remember feeling scared and confused. I didn’t really understand what was happening.

Looking back, I know now that’s what makes the first chemotherapy treatment so frightening—you have no idea what to expect! You’re thinking, “Am I going to lose my hair? Is it going to hurt? Am I going to throw up forever?” Once you’ve been through it, it’s not so bad. But that first time is tough.

Everyone responds differently to different oncology drugs, and no one can expect his or her experience to be exactly like anyone else’s. What I can do, however, is tell you a few things that will most likely happen on your first day. The more you know, the less you have to fear. Fear is a destructive emotion that can hinder your ability to heal, so the more you can reduce your fear and increase your confidence, the better.

Expect a blood test. On chemo day they have to make sure your white blood cell count is high enough to handle the treatment, so roll up your sleeve.

Get ready to wait. After your blood tests are approved, they have to prepare your particular chemo cocktail, and that could take awhile. Take along your iPod, a pillow, a blanket (you know how cold those offices can be), some good books or magazines, and best of all, a good friend to help you get through the waiting.

Food, drink, and clothes. Check with your doctor, but most recommend you eat normally before your treatment. You may or may not experience nausea, so don’t eat anything that could potentially upset your stomach. Take a water bottle with you, and sip regularly all the time you’re there. Dress comfortably, and take extra layers so you can adjust according to the temperature.

Calming techniques. If you’re getting really nervous days or hours before your appointment, take along your favorite calming music, some meditation CDs (I love the ones by Belleruth Naparstek — she has a great one for chemotherapy treatments), or even a notebook/journal so you can write down what you’re feeling. Take anything that will have a calming effect on you, even a stuffed animal!

Next! When it’s time for your treatment, the nurse will typically take you into another room. He or she may show you around, give you some materials to read, and then start your IV. Always feel free to ask questions. Answers will help assuage any fear you may be feeling.

Here comes the treatment. Once your IV is working successfully, they’ll start administering medications through it. Some are harmful to the skin, so if you see the nurse wearing gloves, don’t panic. She’s just protecting her fingers. The treatment can take from 30 minutes to a few hours — ask ahead of time so you can be prepared. Otherwise, just try to sit back and relax. The treatment itself is typically painless. If you feel any discomfort around your IV or port, however, ask the nurse, as, on rare occasions, medications can leak onto the skin.

Hair and fingers. New studies have shown that keeping your scalp and fingers cold during treatment helps protect them from damaging side effects. Use several bags of frozen veggies, or better yet, try the frozen glove or a scalp-cooling device.

That’s it! Once your treatment is over, you’re free to go home, though most physicians prefer you have someone to drive you. Pat yourself on the back. You made it through! Side effects vary from person to person, but do keep a sharp eye on yourself, and contact your doctor or nurse should you experience anything you’re not sure about.

I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. If I made it through, so can you. You can do it! I wish you strength, love, and survival.

Britta Aragon is a cancer survivor and the founder of Cinco Vidas, Inc. She wrote “When Cancer Hits: Your Complete Guide to Taking Care of YOU Through Treatment.”

Photo credit: Nanley (Kate)



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29 responses to What You Can Expect On Your First Day of Chemotherapy
  1. Very good post – my first chemo was terrifying, we just had no clue what to expect (except for the needles and nausea). Good tips. Hopefully this finds its way to someone going in who can really benefit.

  2. Fantastic post! So informative but not filled with doom and gloom.

  3. Although I have had breast cancer twice, I never had to have chemo, for which I am truly grateful. I was terrified until those lab results came back negative! For those dear people who will go through chemo this blog is a godsend: simple, thorough, and reassuring.
    Great job!
    Jamie
    @ibeatcancrtwice

  4. This is an exceptionally useful post – oh how I wish I had been able to read this before my first chemo, I was terrified! Thank you!
    Philippa (aka Feisty Blue Gecko)

  5. @Catherine – thanks for your comment. I know so many people who have no idea what they are walking into so the fear brings them so much anxiety. I believe a big part of walking through this journey is to know that we are not alone and to talk to as many people who have been through this path, whether its doctors, other survivors and caregivers.

    @Heather and Phillippa – thanks for commenting, I too was terrified at 16, I wish I had this info as well. That is why I was so motivated to write my book, the book I wish I had, right?

    @Jamie – thanks for you kind words and yes, so grateful you did not have to have chemo. I think the treatment is the biggest fight I had to go up against.

  6. Make sure you tell your doctor or nurse if you’re feeling any side effects immediately. I had an anaphylactic shock to my first round of chemo. I had started itching badly and had awful chills – but I notified the nurse immediately and they were able to pump Benadryl into me before my breathing got worse.

  7. @Amanda – thank you for mentioning this. Very important! This happened to my father as well and they were able to get the benadryl in time. I think communication is key. We don’t have to accept the pain or discomfort as being the “norm” and thinking that this is what is “supposed to happen” when we have chemo. We must speak up or have our caregivers do so and communicate every detail with your team of doctors and nurses no matter how small you think it is. Always trusting our instinct and speaking up when we think something does not “feel” right.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience. The only thing I would add is to bring a soft, comfy blanket. Chemo rooms can be VERY cold.

    Still Dancing…

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience. The only thing I would add is to bring a soft, comfy blanket. Chemo rooms can be VERY cold.

  10. Britta, this is such a comforting post and will be a help for so many who are facing the unknown of that first treatment. I packed like I was going to be there for the weekend, but it was assuring to have an assortment of entertainment to suit my energy (or lack thereof) for several hours. I was glad I brought my favorite neck pillow, a portable DVD player with ear buds – and a funny movie.

  11. @Laurie, thanks for sharing what helped you. I tend to agree with you that when you have choices, for whatever the mood or energy level may be, it can make the time go faster and take the focus off the treatment itself. Love the neck pillow and funny movie, I have always been a fan of comedy to make me laugh. :)

  12. Well done as always, my friend!

  13. Ugh, the evening after my first chemo was spent with my face in the toilet, wanting to die. Sorry, can’t sugar coat it… it was the worst fucking experience of my life.

  14. Your article would have been great to have before my first chemo……there was one thing that you didn’t mention so I will. I had a chest port under my skin so I did have to go through that “fish hook” installation before chemo. Make sure that your nurse is using a freeze spray and then it’s just a prick!! I always had oatmeal before chemo but I had a motto for after chemo…..I stopped and ate Mexican after every one because if I did get sick…..I wanted to have enjoyed one meal!!! Funny thing, although I felt nauseous most of the first few days I never actually threw up….at all!! On a breast cancer cocktail even. So I was really lucky. Zofran is your friend!!! Thanks for the article I really enjoyed it!!!

  15. I brought my laptop so I could Tweet/Facebook/Skype while I was having treatment. I also brought DVDs – “The Princess Bride” & “When Harry Met Sally” – as comfort food for the soul – no cancer references, wonderful, feel-good movies. I’m also thinking of bringing “The Wizard of Oz” with me for round 2.

    As always, I had my LIVESTRONG bracelet with me.

    And I have a signed copy of the LIVESTRONG Manifesto. My chemo treatments are relatively short, but when I was in the hospital for my mastectomy, I had it framed and at the foot of my bed facing me throughout. I found it incredibly empowering.

  16. Britta – What an amazing article and I hope many patients will have the opportunity to read this post and your book. Knowledge is power. Anything that can be done to help other patients know what to expect will not only reduce fear but also give them the tools to empower themselves again. I know the first time I took chemo (which was for another condition) it was the loss of control as well as the fear of the unknown that was the most difficult to handle. I also have to give three cheers to the “bring a dear friend”. I had and continue to have my best friend with me through the journey (Dr. appointments, lab tests, surgery, etc) and it is one of the reasons I know I am a survivor. Keep on bringing light to this difficult topic.

  17. Britta, you offer great practical tips and insights without hitting the panic button. Being prepared without going into worst case scenario thinking is essential as it is so true that each individual has their own experience of this process. As a caregiver, one thing that helped me feel like I was making a difference on chemo days was being in charge of the chemo kit as we called it. Two items I might add to your list are kleenex and a toothbrush with some toothpaste. Gary really appreciated this the times he did suffer from nausea…which wasn’t every treatment.

    You write gently and beautifully about what feel like a daunting day. Congratulations on the recent publication of your book!

  18. Britta, you offer great practical tips and insights without hitting the panic button. Being prepared without going into worst case scenario thinking is essential as it is so true that each individual has their own experience of this process. As a caregiver, one thing that helped me feel like I was making a difference on chemo days was being in charge of the chemo kit as we called it. Two items I might add to your list are a toothbrush with some toothpaste. Gary really appreciated this the times he did suffer from nausea…which wasn’t every treatment.

    You write gently and beautifully about what feel like a daunting day. Congratulations on the recent publication of your book!

  19. @Jennifer – loved the motto for after chemo to eat whatever you wanted. what a great way to nourish your soul in a time that is so unpredictable as to what you can or cannot eat. Giving to yourself in this way is a great form of self-care at a deeper level.
    @Tambre – love prepping a “chemo kit”, what a wonderful idea for caregivers

  20. I’ll be receiving my first chemo treatment in the next few weeks. Although I have been told there is a class I’ll get to go through first, it was very helpful to read this article now. The more informed I can be, the less fear I have. If I can “own” the experience, it empowers me. Thank you for the excellent article.

    - Nola Cross

  21. @Nola – all the very best with your first treatment. I am glad you found this article helpful. Keep me posted on how you do and you can always contact me via my site (www.cincovidas.com). sending you good thoughts and lots of love and strength as you embark on this journey. You are not alone!

  22. My first chemo will be 11/16. Having Carbo Platin and Taxotere. Not sure what they are, or what to expect. Am scared and can’t stop crying. Seeing I’m not the only one is helping but I know time to accept and adjust will be a big help too.

  23. i am a new time breast cancer survivor (thriver) but never had chemo therapy. I found both lumps by checking my breasts regularly. I just want to let everyone know that I had to fight a few doctors to believe me the second time around, but we ALL know our bodies if we listen. I have had a double mastectomy and also two reconstructions. The silicone implants leaked, and now I have it in my body. I feel poisoned and angry that once again the doctors thought that I was crazy when I told them I thought they were leaking. I also lived in Woodstock and I can tell you that I met many strong women and men that helped me heal there. I practice a diet of as many fruits and veggies, organic milk and eggs, and stay away from white foods. It is a pleasure to discover you for the first time today Kris. I will be ordering your book and thinking how much your inspirational vlogs gave me hope today. You are the angel that I needed to find in my journey..thank you!

    • I like your word, “thriver”! Just wanted to highlight what you said about knowing our own bodies. The docs are a resource but not always the perfect authority on each of our individual bodies. I don’t suggest ignoring medical advice nor swallowing it whole. I think, from my own experiences and from watching others, that we have to weigh all the input and make careful decisions ourselves when it comes to health problems. It’s harder that way, but, I am convinced that we have to think for ourselves when it comes to these decisions.

  24. oh, I am so sorry…I must change the first sentence..”Two times” breast cancer survivor 2006 and 2008.

  25. @Lisa – you are not alone – that is for sure. There are so many of us on this journey. It helps to speak to other survivors and be able to hear what they went through. sometimes not knowing what to expect is the very thing that is scary. You will be okay and get through it, I did as well as many others. We are here so do reach out! You can always find me on my blog as well

    @Stephanie – Thanks for sharing your experience. I am sorry about what you have been going though and yes, it is so important to be able to trust our intuition. No one knows our body like we do and just because we are not being heard does not mean something isn’t “off” . Glad you found great support in Woodstock as I think friends and family are so important to help carry us through the difficult times. Glad you got the book – do let me know what you think. I believe it is aligned with your philosophy of living. Best to you

  26. This is a helpful post—clear, concise, accurate and reassuring to the person about to enter tx. I especially like the part, “..increasing confidence and reducing fear…” So important! and this would be important for most major diseases. Sometimes the medical treatment professionals don’t do enough encouraging, calming and instilling hope. Offering hope is one of the cornerstones of therapy but seems to be in short supply when it comes to nurses and doctors. The patient has to try to find their way to this themselves; our brains do affect our bodies.

  27. can i add one thing that got me thru..meditation, never tried it before not that type of girl!! But just a D.I.Y attempt from library book helped my nerves with breathing technics, knowledge of what your body’s going thru gives you power to stay posative, then theres learning to take your mind to a different place, to feel calm and strong, yeah i know what ur thinking, try it while ur getting thru your medicine time, worked for me, wishing you strength,health and long life

  28. Thank you your article really helped my mother. Even though it is still scary we are a bit more prepared as we read encouraging articles like yours. Again thank you.