Chemotherapy: Let's get it started

Patient Expert

At last After all the anxiety, the mental (and some physical) preparation, you're finally going to begin chemotherapy. Today's your first appointment -- what can you expect?

Chemo Treatment: Appointment #1 -- Who Drives?

Your first move is to get to the hospital or clinic. Should you drive yourself, or"? I would suggest having someone drive you; you don't know what you'll feel like when you're through. Even if you don't want/need your spouse or a friend to stay with you during treatment, it's good to have a ride, at least when you're going home. If you MUST drive yourself home, take it slow and easy; don't rush right out of the hospital, hop in the car, and go. You might want to have a cup of tea, or just walk around a bit first, to stretch out after having sat for several hours.

Special Parking Spaces?

Next-check and see if there's a special parking lot for cancer and/or chemo patients. You may have already discovered it on previous appointments; but if not, ask. After chemo, the walk from the door of the hospital to the far reaches of a crowded hospital parking lot can seem very long indeed.

Be sure you know where you're going in the hospital (nothing like being late for your first "chemical cocktail!")

Chemotherapy is also known as "infusion," so you may be looking for the infusion area. You're not necessarily going to the same place you have your oncology appointments; while most of the patients getting infusions will be receiving chemotherapy, some are getting blood transfusions or some other non-cancer treatment.

Ask your doctor exactly where to go beforehand, if you're not sure.

How to Dress for Chemo

Bring comfortable, warm clothes; wearing layers helps. Be prepared to assess the temperature of the chemo area when you arrive, and peel off a layer if necessary. Once you're "hooked up," if the IV is in your arm it's impossible to take off a sweater. Better to be a little cool, and wrap yourself in a blanket (they'll provide you with one), than to be sweating and unable to cool off.

Keep Busy!

Bring something to read, something to do (knitting, puzzles), or a lively friend. You'll be pretty much immobilized for several hours; you'll need something to do to pass the time, other than just sit there and worry about how you're going to feel afterwards. Oh, but don't worry; if you have to use the restroom (always a consideration for us women over 50!), you'll be able to take your rolling IV stand with you.

To Sit or to Lie

When you enter the infusion/chemo area, you may be asked if you want to sit in a chair, or lie in a bed. Your choice; I preferred the recliner, as it made me feel less like a "patient," and more like I might have been at the hair salon, waiting for a perm to set. Hey, perception can be reality, when you're talking about your emotions!

The nurse administering chemo will be "gowned and gloved" like a surgeon. He or she is administering some very powerful chemicals, and doesn't want to chance being exposed. Wow, that sure makes you feel good, eh? They don't want to touch even a drop, and the stuff is pouring into your veins?

Well, that's the reality; chemo is a big tough cure for a big bad disease.

Accept the fact, and move on.

Needles vs. Infusion Port

If you have trouble with needles; or if you know from past experience that you have difficult veins to access, you may want to consider an infusion port (a.k.a. port-a-cath). It's a small implanted tube, usually in the upper chest area, that remains in place throughout chemo, and negates the necessity for sticking a needle in your arm. This decision is usually made before your first treatment, but you can ask for one even after you've begun, if you find the "search for a good vein" was too distressing that first time out.

Pick the Crackers

After you're hooked up, the nurse will leave you to your own devices, coming back occasionally to check on how it's going, or to change he IV bag. There may be hospital volunteers coming around offering food and drinks; be careful what you accept. You may begin to feel queasy; better not to challenge your digestive system with a nice big tuna salad sandwich! Crackers are a better choice, until you determine whether or not chemo upsets your stomach.

Once all the chemicals have drained into you, you're done; they'll take out the needle, and send you home. Where you relax for a bit" and wait to see how your body reacts. Hope for the best, but be prepared to deal with side effects.

Next up in my chemo series
Don't accept feeling sick-ask for help! Tips for dealing with side effects.