Preparing for Your First Chemotherapy Treatment

By Winnie Yu
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

You’ve just scheduled your first chemotherapy treatment, and you’re feeling uneasy. After all, you’ve heard horror stories about other people’s experiences. Or maybe you went on a research rampage and now you know way too much about chemo’s possible side effects.

It’s completely normal and expected for the days and weeks leading up to chemo to be riddled with anxiety, says Kimberly A. Stump-Sutliff, MSN, RN, an associate medical editor for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. However, the treatment itself often winds up feeling anticlimactic, she adds.

Help ease your mind and even put your biggest concerns to rest by preparing for treatment. “The more you know about what to expect, the more comfortable you’ll be going into it,” Stump-Sutliff says. Here’s what to do before the big day:

Ask detailed questions. The exact treatment you’ll receive depends on the drug you’re getting and how it’s given. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • What are the post-treatment precautions?
  • How long will the infusion take?
  • Will I get an IV or a catheter?
  • What kind of side effects might I have?
  • Do I need to drink extra fluids afterward?
  • Can I continue taking my supplements and herbs?
  • Will I be able to work while receiving chemotherapy? 
  • Will I lose my hair, and if so, how soon?

Getting the specifics helps you know what to expect before, during and after your treatment.

Visit the facility. Just being able to see where you’ll be getting your chemotherapy can significantly reduce anxiety, Stump-Sutliff says. Ask for a tour of the clinic, hospital, outpatient facility or other place you’ll be going.  And meet the nurses who will be taking care of you.

Get your prescriptions filled. In case you need anti-nausea medications afterward, have your prescriptions filled at the pharmacy before your treatment. Get any other medications your doctor suggests (such as over-the-counter medications), so you’ll have them when needed.

Delve into money matters. “Work out the financial details, so you’re not thrown for a loop at the end,” Stump-Sutliff says. “Chemotherapy is expensive. We’re not talking hundreds of dollars, but thousands.” Before treatment, find out your financial obligations. You may want to speak with your insurance company as well as the finance specialist at the facility from which you’re getting your treatment. Also ask your insurance company if they cover chemotherapy clinical trials.

Recruit a chemo buddy. Although most people can drive themselves to and from treatment, the first visit typically involves learning new information. “It’s always good to have a second set of ears,” Stump-Sutliff says. “You may get it in writing, but it’s nice to have someone with you for company, if nothing else.”

Pack properly. Most facilities don’t provide food, so bring some munchies and water. Stick with light items that don’t have a strong aroma, and avoid anything overly sweet, greasy, fried or fatty, which can upset your stomach. Minimize smells by eating foods cold or at room temperature. “Some people like to bring foods that they prefer when they're sick, like ginger ale, crackers, pretzels and such,” says Stump-Sutliff. Also bring a good book, your laptop or a knitting project to distract you during treatment.

Published March 2014

  Getting Ready for Chemo

Starting Chemo: Preparing for Today's Visit
Preparing for Your First Chemotherapy Treatment
Your Chemo Checklist
Key Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Your Personal Chemo 'Cocktail'
6 Ways to Relax in the Chemotherapy Room

More Chemo Basics

Get Comfortable
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Take Some Advice from 3 Chemo Mentors
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