What to expect from chemotherapy and how to prepare
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment used to disrupt the growth of cancer cells. It is natural to feel nervous if you are having your first chemotherapy session. Knowing what to expect and being prepared can help to reduce your anxiety.
The expert team at Cancer Centre London support you throughout your treatment and explain every aspect of your care. In this article, our Lead Cancer Nurse Isabel Patterson answers some frequently asked questions about chemotherapy.
What is chemotherapy and how does it work?
Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells almost anywhere in the body. The drugs work in different ways. They can:
- attack cancer cells and break them down
- stop cancer cells from growing
- starve cancer cells of the food that they need
The drugs also affect normal, healthy cells. This is why chemotherapy can cause side effects. Most side effects are temporary and stop after you have finished treatment because the healthy cells usually repair themselves.
There are many types of chemotherapy drugs and new medicines are always being developed. You may have one chemotherapy drug or a combination of different types.
When is chemotherapy used?
Whether chemotherapy is a suitable treatment for you depends on different factors. They include:
- what type of cancer you have and how big it is
- whether the cancer has spread or might return
- your general health
Your consultant at Cancer Centre London explains the treatment options and whether chemotherapy is likely to be successful.
You may have chemotherapy by itself or with other cancer treatments. Chemotherapy can be used:
- as the main treatment for some types of cancer, such as blood cancer
- to make other treatments more effective (for example, chemotherapy can be combined with radiotherapy or reduce the size of a cancer before radiotherapy or surgery)
- to prevent cancer from returning after radiotherapy or surgery
- to treat cancer that has spread or control symptoms if there is no cure
How can I prepare for chemotherapy?
Our team at Cancer Centre London give you specific instructions about how to prepare for chemotherapy. Before your treatment begins, you have a ‘pre-chemo chat’ with us. We explain the treatment in detail, together with possible side effects and how to manage them.
We arrange any advance tests that you may need. These may include blood tests, X-rays and scans. You may also need to visit your dentist for a check-up to avoid any problems with your teeth during treatment. We record your height and weight to calculate your dose of chemotherapy.
We prepare an individual treatment plan for you. It is important to ask us any questions that you may have. You also need to tell us about any medicines, including herbal remedies, vitamins or supplements, that you are taking or plan to take. Some medicines may make chemotherapy less effective and we can give you advice about this.
Talking to our team about likely side effects can help you to plan ahead. For example, many but not all cancer treatments can affect your hair. Some chemotherapy drugs can cause hair thinning or loss, but your hair should start to grow back soon after treatment. We can offer scalp cooling to reduce hair loss from chemotherapy. This restricts blood flow to the scalp and can prevent chemotherapy from affecting your hair. The success rate of scalp cooling varies from person to person.
Scalp cooling does not work for all chemotherapy drugs, but you can check with the team whether it is suitable for you. If you do not want to try scalp cooling or it is not effective, we can give you advice about coping with hair loss. This includes information about wigs and other types of headwear.
If the chemotherapy may affect your fertility, you could consider the options to store your sperm or eggs for the future.
A common side effect of chemotherapy is tiredness (fatigue). It is hard to predict exactly how you will feel during treatment. Some people continue their daily routine, but you may need to arrange time off work and help at home or with childcare. It is best to avoid having a busy schedule for a few days after each chemotherapy session. You can have useful supplies ready for when you come home, such as meals in the freezer.
All chemotherapy drugs have different side effects. We explain what to expect and how to deal with the side effects at the ‘pre-chemo chat’ meeting. Our team give you written information and a book to keep a record of your treatments.
It is a good idea for someone to drive you to and from your first chemotherapy session. We recommend wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. You can pack a small bag of items that help you to feel at ease and pass the time, such as:
- a warm blanket, cardigan or scarf
- snacks, such as fresh fruit, crackers, soup, mints or ginger chews
- headphones to listen to relaxing music or guided meditation exercises
- something to read, an electronic device, crossword puzzles or crafts
- a pen and paper to make any notes about your treatment
How is chemotherapy given and what can I expect?
Chemotherapy can be given in several ways, including through:
- a cannula (a small tube put into a vein in your hand or lower arm)
- a portacath (a small device put under your skin) or a PICC line (a small tube put into a vein in your arm), if you have treatment over several days or it is hard to access your veins
- tablets or capsules
- injections under the skin
- injections into a muscle
The most suitable method for you depends on what type of cancer you have and your treatment plan. Sometimes, you may need to have chemotherapy in more than one way.
In most cases, you have chemotherapy into a vein through a cannula, portacath or PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line. This is called intravenous chemotherapy and carried out in our chemotherapy day unit. To make sure that it is safe for you to be treated, you have a blood test before each chemotherapy cycle. We give you some medicine in advance, such as anti-sickness tablets.
You can sit in a recliner chair. The chemotherapy medicine is then given to you slowly from a bag of fluid that is attached with a tube to one of your veins. This medicine goes directly into your blood and travels throughout your body. Our pharmacy team may prepare medicines for you to take home.
You usually have several chemotherapy sessions over a few months. There is a rest period between each session, which allows your body to recover.
How will Cancer Centre London support me if I have chemotherapy?
At Cancer Centre London, we understand that having chemotherapy can be daunting. Our experienced team combine expertise and compassion to give you the best possible care. The team includes leading cancer consultants (oncologists), cancer nurses, pharmacists, radiologists who interpret scans, a physiotherapist and a dietitian.
If you have chemotherapy, you will be introduced to a specialist cancer nurse. They see you throughout your chemotherapy sessions and make sure that you are fully informed about your treatment.
There is a peaceful environment at Cancer Centre London with modern facilities for individuals having chemotherapy. The chemotherapy day unit has 12 chemotherapy chairs and pleasant garden views. We try to create a calm atmosphere. Our caring nurses give you your chemotherapy and monitor you throughout your treatment session.
Chemotherapy can make it harder for your body to fight infection. During the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, we have introduced extra hygiene measures to protect your health and safety.
We offer a wide range of support services for you and your loved ones at Cancer Centre London. These services include:
You can find more information about radiotherapy at Cancer Centre London here.
To book an appointment at Cancer Centre London, please call 020 8247 3379 or complete this form online.