Chemotherapy treatment is scary for cancer patients and loved ones alike. Know chemo side effects and how you can support someone undergoing treatment.

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What to Expect When a Loved One Needs Chemotherapy


(JANUARY 2014) Cancer treatment is obviously a scary time for the patient. It can be just as stressful and confusing for loved ones. Depending on the stage of cancer, there may be several treatment options available. When chemotherapy is chosen, the treatment has serious impacts on the patient’s overall health and wellness. Loved ones should know as much about chemotherapy as possible in order to provide the best support.

The first thing to find out is just how much of your involvement your loved one wants while undergoing chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is taxing on both the body and the spirit. Some patients lean heavily on people close to them during this time while others prefer to face it primarily on their own. Respect their wishes. The most important thing is to simply let the patient know you’re there to help in any way possible.

If the patient is open to as much help as you can offer, feel free to cook and serve meals, drive to and from and attend appointments, help around the house or anything else that lessens outside burdens. These needs may change over time as the side effects of treatment increase or diminish.

If your loved one allows you to attend chemotherapy appointments with him, prepare to be there for a few hours each time. Bring items like games, MP3 players, laptops and magazines to pass the time. You may also want to bring a blanket or pillow to ensure you’re both comfortable. Depending on the type of cancer, treatments may be daily, weekly or monthly for several months to a year.

If your loved one is less open to assistance, allow him space. Let him bring up the topic and then listen more than you speak. Pay close attention to his mood. Cancer and treatment can trigger depression in some people. If you see warning signs, ask a mental health professional for guidance.

From a physical health standpoint, you should do as much research as possible to learn about impacts of both the disease and the treatment. If permitted, consult with your loved one’s physician. Ask about signs of infection or other issues.

You also want to learn about common chemotherapy side effects. Nausea is one of the more common side effects. This often occurs based on the combination of chemotherapy drugs being taken. Risks increase when chemotherapy is applied in conjunction with radiation or other therapies. There are a variety of medications the patient can take to counteract nausea. Diet may also play a role.

Fatigue is also common in chemotherapy patients. The body is working hard to repair collateral damage done to healthy cells and tissues. Emotional stress from dealing with cancer and treatment may influence fatigue as well.

For many, hair loss is one of the most difficult side effects. As a culture, we place a lot of emphasis on people’s appearance and hair plays a role in that. You can try to help your loved through this particular loss in a number of ways. Go hat, scarf or wig shopping together. Host a party where all the patient’s friends come over for a good time and each brings a wig as a present.

With so many side effects potentially happening at once, it’s possible for the patient’s body to be overwhelmed. This can sometimes lead to fainting or passing out. When the patient comes to, it may take time for him to communicate effectively. Wearing a medical identification bracelet is a convenient way to provide important health information when an individual is incoherent.

As a caregiver, it’s important for you to keep up your own health and attitude in order to provide the best possible support to the patient. That means not overlooking your own physical and emotional needs. Eat right, get plenty of rest, exercise and make time for yourself. Find a friend with whom you can share your frustrations, concerns and hopes.

For more information on chemotherapy, visit the American Center Society at