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Chemotherapy: What to Expect for Your First Treatment

We’ve watched friends and loved ones go through it. We’ve seen it referenced in movies and television. We’ve walked, run and worn colors to support it. Cancer treatment is something with which we all have some level of experience. But when you get the diagnosis, any sense of familiarity you had seems to float away.

If chemotherapy is part of your treatment plan, it’s very easy to feel confused, overwhelmed and even scared. However, Robert Swaney, MD, a medical oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at North Colorado Medical Center, reassured that you are never alone in your battle. In fact, your team is made up of a wide range of people—from doctors and nurses to patient navigators and social workers—all with diverse expertise, knowledge and experience.

Dr. Swaney went on to share some helpful insight to help prepare you for your first treatment.

What is Chemotherapy?

“Chemotherapy refers to drugs that interfere with cancer cell growth and are cytotoxic, meaning that they kill cancer cells,” explained Dr. Swaney. “The treatment can be administered several ways, although intravenous (IV) is the most common. Chemotherapy is somewhat nonspecific, meaning that while it kills cancer cells, it can affect other cells in the body, particularly those that reproduce more actively. This contributes to some of its side effects.”

Frequency, dosage, and duration of treatments are based on clinical research which has typically including hundreds or thousands of patients. When the drugs are given intravenously, a port is often recommended. Ports are implanted entirely under the skin and are used with an IV connection for treatments.

What to Expect for Your First Treatment

There are many resources available to patients and their loved ones. Dr. Swaney noted that before your first treatment, you will attend a chemotherapy class which includes answers to common questions and the basics of what to expect. Home medications, port care, and safety measures pertaining to chemotherapy are discussed. It may be helpful to bring a notebook both to class and clinic appointments.

Each infusion center is focused on your comfort. When you arrive, you’ll speak with a health care provider to discuss how you’re feeling and any needs you may have. You will have a soft, comfortable chair, usually a recliner, and access to snacks, beverages, and meals during your treatment. Dr. Swaney explained that you will get a lot of personal attention from the staff to help you feel relaxed and provide you with what you need.

Every plan is different. Your visit could last as little as one to two hours, or as long as six or more hours. Sometimes you will need to come in the next day for an injection, or two days later for a port pump discontinuation (if there is a medicine infusing while you are home). This will all be discussed with you ahead of your first treatment. Dr. Swaney recommended arranging a ride home from your first treatment. Depending on your condition, you may be able to drive yourself from subsequent appointments unless your plan includes sedation.

You may bring your laptop, tablet, book, crochet or knit projects, etc. with you so that you can relax the way you would at home. It is fine to bring a snack that you might prefer. Warm blankets are usually available, but it may be a good idea to bring an extra layer in case you feel cold. Although family are usually allowed in the infusion center, check with your provider for their current visitation policy.

Following Your First Treatment

“After your first treatment, try to rest,” commented Dr. Swaney. “You may not feel side effects right away, but your body is hard at work, battling alongside your new medication.” Patients often ask how much time they will need away from work or how much help they will need at home. While this varies according to the treatment regimen, it is common to be off work on treatment days and sometimes several days afterwards. You will generally be able to continue many activities but may need more help with things like food preparation, shopping and the like. Often, you will learn during your first few treatments how you are affected.

Your medical team is focused on your well-being and will meet with you regularly to discuss how you are doing and how the cancer treatment is progressing. During follow-up visits, you are encouraged to speak plainly about any difficulties you are experiencing so that your treatment or associated medications can be modified if needed. During treatment, your medical team may recommend scans of your body to check on progress. There are various scans used to assess the cancer. These scans provide important milestone information that your team will use to modify your treatment plan if needed.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

How you feel throughout your treatment plan will depend on the types of drugs used and your body’s reaction to the medication. The length and severity of chemotherapy side effects vary greatly from patient to patient. Dr. Swaney offered some words of comfort. “In most cases, the side effects that you experience during treatment will not linger once chemotherapy has ended. This can be a challenging and sometimes difficult time. But you will not be alone. We will discuss the potential side effects and benefits of each treatment before you begin and adjust your plan as needed so that you are as comfortable as possible.”

Dr. Swaney encouraged shared decision-making and open communication with your team throughout your treatment to ensure your cancer treatment aligns with your preferences and values.

If you are looking for more information regarding chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, you can find resources at bannerhealth.com. You can schedule an appointment with a Banner MD Anderson expert any time to discuss your symptoms or concerns.

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