Before it all Begins…. Your First Chemo
At this point you may feel a bit confused and frightened – this is normal. No one really knows what to expect and your first chemo can seem like a very daunting experience.
For some people (and I count myself amongst those) being prepared can really help. Oncology units vary but are basically all very similar in their set up. Don’t forget the staff are very used to ‘Newbies’ and will make you feel very welcome. No question is too daft, if you don’t know the answer you need to ask it.
Usually you will be asked to attend the department prior to the start of your chemo. This is a Pre Assessment Visit. During this visit you will be shown around the department – don’t forget to find out important things like where the toilets are and where the hot drinks machine is. Just knowing these sorts of things when you arrive for your first treatment can help you feel more comfortable and confident.
Often there is a menu for lunches that you and your Chemo Buddy can choose from, make sure you know where it is!
It helps to have seen a treatment room before your first visit so that you can visualise where the chemo will take place and remove some of the fear of the unknown. Ask if you can have a look at the Cold Cap system so that you can familiarise yourself. In most units the staff will be willing to help you with these things – after all they want you to be as much at your ease as possible when you arrive on your first day.
One of the oncology nurses will then sit down to talk to you and take a medical and social history. If you have been in hospital before this will be very similar. This is a good time to share any of your fears – you won’t be the first or the last person to express these.
You will probably then have some prechemo bloods taken (if you already have a port or a line in it may be taken via these but otherwise will be taken from your arm as normal). These bloods are important to establish that you have normal kidney and liver function and that you are not anaemic or harbouring an infection. Swabs of the nose and groin may also be carried out to exclude MRSA in the same way they would be done for any hospital treatment.
What to Take to Your First chemo
So, having done the pre assessment visit you should hopefully feel a little more at ease. If you don’t, don’t panic, everyone is different but as the treatment goes on you will get used to the process on Chemo Days.
I found it useful to have talked to people who had been through chemotherapy and from this made a list of what I’d take for my first treatment:
A blanket – this is useful particularly if cold capping but is also a comfort and nicer than hospital blankets if you want to snuggle up and snooze (to be recommended!) You may even wish to take a pillow to avoid the nod dog effect of your head should you fall asleep.
A cold drink of your choice – there is usually water available but its important to keep hydrated during chemo and sometimes this may be easier if you have a sports style bottle in front of you rather than a hospital jug.
Reading materials – I say this rather than ‘a book’ which would be my usual choice because your concentration may wander initially so browsing through magazines or the paper can be a lot easier.
Phone – It’s great to receive texts from friends while you are having treatment and a very good time to catch up on old friends while you are held captive in your chair!
Devices – to catch up on films or box sets while you are sitting still, don’t forget headphones as you may be sitting quite close to other patients.
A hat – Especially if cold capping or if you’ve already lost your hair.
A Good Friend – (or obviously partner!) It may be good to vary your Chemo Buddy – this is a golden opportunity to catch up with friends and they are invaluable when nipping off to the coffee shop and bring back drink and treats!
Boiled sweets – Some chemo regimes can affect your taste buds and make your mouth taste nasty so boiled sweets can be really useful especially after you’ve nodded off.
Biscuits for the staff – this is obviously a bit light hearted but every few treatments I took treats in for the staff which were really appreciated – they were all working so hard and constantly chatty and smiley. They were also great for giving hugs when they were needed. They made the whole experience so much easier.
What to Expect at Your first Chemo
On the day of your first chemo the nurses will talk through the actual procedure.
They will explain the medication which you need to have before the treatment starts – the Pre Meds. These may be different for different treatment regimes but are usually medications to stop you from feeling or being sick (antiemetics) and often Steroids. For some regimes you may also have Antihistamines.
You will probably have had a Picc Line or Portacath inserted before going in for chemotherapy – which one you have will depend on the unit at which you are being treated and your consultant.
In order to administer the treatment the nursing staff will follow a strict protocol of cleaning and preparing the site for attaching the drip.
Once you are attached you can sit back and relax. Make use of the reclining chairs and the call button if you need anything. Although alien at first you will get used to the whirring of the drip and the bleeping of the alarms as the drip bag empties.
Although it won’t have felt much like a party you will probably get given a goody bag from pharmacy.
This may contain more anti sickness medication, more steroids and often something to help your bowels (laxatives). This is because the medication you have had, including the chemotherapy itself can be very constipating. There is also the problem that your appetite may be quite different on chemotherapy and you may not really feel like eating fruit and vegetables which would normally keep your bowels moving.
It will be a relief to get home on Chemo Days but you may feel a bit worried too, especially at the beginning. The department will have provided you with the important phone numbers so you know who to contact in various situations and also a card to keep with you to alert others in the event you become unwell when you are out and about.
Don’t forget to relax and catch up on some sleep if you feel tired which you may well do. Keep drinking plenty of fluid. You may not have much of an appetite and your tastes may have changed from your normal so it can be tricky trying to work out what you want to eat. This is one of the reasons its a good idea to have someone at home with you on chemo nights.
Don’t forget to hug the kids
Chemotherapy will take a lot of your energy and time. There may be others at home who have been worried about you and spending a few minutes with them having a cuddle and hug or just chatting about their day can benefit you both. It often helps to know that normal life is continuing despite the fact you’ve stepped of the treadmill (temporarily).
Related Article – Chemotherapy and Sleep Problems