Now that I have gone through chemotherapy and come out the other side, I am ready to share with you the list of things that I felt were essential in my chemo journey. (I recognize that everyone’s treatment is different, so what you need for chemo might be different than what I needed.)
I was so nervous about chemo that I found myself drowning my nerves in Google searches about what to pack in a chemo bag. The lists were all pretty similar, but I found that there were a few things that I needed that I never found on a list.
My goal with sharing cancer-related articles on this blog is to help fill in the practical blanks that I experienced when I was going through cancer treatment. I hope this list helps to give you an idea of what you need for chemo.
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I’m going to organize this post into three parts:
- BEFORE chemo (meaning what you need at home to prepare for any chemo treatment, whether it is the first round or the fifteenth),
- DURING chemo (what you will need at the time of infusion), and
- AFTER chemo (what you will need at home following treatment).
BEFORE CHEMO – How do I prepare for chemotherapy at home?
I feel pretty safe in saying that, no matter what chemo regimen your oncologist has chosen, it will involve a significant amount of pills. And you will access those pills regularly.
I kept my pills in a small basket, so that I could bring them upstairs with me in the morning, to take my pills throughout the day, and then back downstairs in the evening so that I had them handy for any medication needs through the night.
Believe me, when you’re horribly nauseous in the middle of the night, the last thing you want is to be digging through all of the medication in your family’s medicine cabinet to find the pills you need. Keeping your chemo-related pills separate and in one place will save your sanity.
You might also want a way to keep track of when you take your meds, because they will often ask about this at your appointments…”When did you last take a Zofran?”
If I had to do it all over again, I would probably experiment with one of these pill organizers that allows you to separate the pills by day AND by time of day.
Until you get a feel for the temperature of your treatment center, it is best to dress in layers that are easy to shed. (Cardigans instead of pull-overs.)
Just make sure that the clothing you choose to wear will keep your port easily accessible. V-necks and button-ups are your friend!
You will also want to make sure that you are wearing clothing that will be comfortable for sitting around. (As my pants grew tighter the further I got into treatment, I stopped wearing jeans and started opting for leggings.)
As I mentioned in my post about mastectomy preparation, don’t go overboard buying a bunch of new clothing to access your port and be comfy at chemo. One or two chemo outfits will be plenty, and you can probably find what you need in your closet already.
Mush and Push
So we’re going to talk poop for a second. Sorry, but if you’re facing chemo you need to get used to talking about your….business.
Many chemotherapy drugs can cause diarrhea, but most of the anti-nausea medication that you’ll have pumped into your system at chemo (and the pills that you might take at home) can cause constipation.
In a perfect world, the two would cancel each other out and you would be left with beautifully regular bowels. Not so much. The anti-nausea meds will gain control of your bowels and STOP. YOU. UP.
So what’s the solution?
My recommendation is going into the chemo appointment with at least a half dose of stool softener AND laxative in your system (obviously, you’ll want to run this past your doctor…this is just what worked for me).
Why both a stool softener and laxative?
My nurse explained to me that treating constipation effectively requires dealing with both the “mush” (stool softener) and the “push” (laxative).
But don’t you fret…as soon as you feel like you have your bowels balanced, (PLUS you’re not feeling so nauseous anymore so you cut back on the nausea meds) then the diarrhea will start. I tell you, it’s a delicate dance but you’ll soon figure out your own rhythm.
Okay…poop talk done.
Plastic Wrap and Tape
If you have a port, you will probably be given some cream to help numb your port area in preparation for chemo. So about one hour before the appointment, you will apply the cream to your port area and then cover it.
You don’t want to use a regular band-aid, because it will soak up the cream. I chose to use a little square of Saran wrap and then covered it over with medical tape (or a Band-aid).
DURING CHEMO – What do I need for chemotherapy?
Some Sort of Pastime
When you enter the doors of a chemo infusion center, you are basically entering a time warp. Everything moves at a slower pace, and you’ll definitely get used to it.
I actually found that I enjoyed the few hours that I was able to spend in this quiet, laid-back environment (as long as I didn’t think too much about the poison being injected into my body).
The most important thing is to take something with you that will help you pass the time. Whether it’s a book, crochet, your work laptop, or a buddy to chat with, it is important to have something.
To put it in perspective, I started a book series shortly before chemo that had THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of pages, and finished it before I was even done with all of my rounds of chemo.
Keep in mind that you might not feel up for a particular activity one day, so have a few choices in your bag.
You will definitely want to pack snacks for your very first chemo treatment, until you are familiar with what food is offered at your treatment center.
The nurses and volunteers at my treatment center frequently brought around a snack tray for us to choose from, so I quickly discovered that I didn’t need to pack as many snacks as I did the first time.
However, as I become more and more sick as the rounds went on, I had to bring my own food and drink that I knew I could tolerate.
This is another area that you will want to over-prepare for the first treatment.
Chemo can be pretty miserable if you are cold, so I would suggest bringing a blanket if you aren’t sure your treatment center will have them.
I took a small fleece blanket that had been given to me, but found out that the cancer center had handmade quilts that they kept in a blanket warmer (basically a little piece of heaven on earth). So that was one less item that I had to bring with me.
But definitely have a blanket packed in your bag for your first chemo treatment!
It is highly likely that your skin is going to do some crazy stuff while you go through chemo treatments, so keeping lotion and chap stick handy is a must.
AFTER CHEMO – What do I need after chemotherapy?
Netflix/Hulu/Prime Video Subscription
Even if TV is not your thing…you will probably have some sleepless nights and watching TV makes the nights a little less lonely.
You might sleep like a baby at night but hate how slowly the day passes when you feel so sick and are looking for a distraction.
Either way, I highly recommend a streaming service like Netflix instead of regular TV. Just find a TV series you like and let it fly on auto-play. No fast forwarding through commercials on the DVR….no channel surfing through late night TV….(You just have to deal with the occasional, slightly-judgmental, question of “Are you still watching?”)
If you are receiving chemo drugs that cause hair loss, you will want to have head coverings on hand. Even if you want to rock a bald head (Go for it! Bald is beautiful!), nights can be a little chilly…especially when your hair first starts falling out.
I wore a soft beanie (like the one above) to bed every night when I first started going bald. Here is a link to some beanies on Amazon that look very similar to what I used. It kept my head warm and helped keep my pillow clean (losing your hair is a messy endeavor…even if you buzz your head).
When I say soft beanie, I mean REALLY soft.
What feels soft to your hand will not necessarily feel soft on your newly-bare scalp. I found that soft jersey knit was the easiest on my tender skin. Another thing to keep in mind – your hair will get caught in the beanie and make a big mess.
I had two beanies that I used for the week that I was REALLY losing my hair and then switched them out for clean ones. Because, even after washing, the little whisker hairs were still stuck in the hats. Jersey knit might be soft, but it definitely likes to hold onto the little hairs!
If you are curious about the timeline of my hair loss, check out this post and video that takes you through the first year of my breast cancer journey, one photo at a time.
So many snacks. Nibbling through my day like a pregnant woman was my best method for dealing with the nausea. (You can also try the anti-nausea candies and lollipops. I was just sensitive to the ingredients in them.)
I would suggest having a few snacks of each type on hand (salty, sweet, chewy, sour, etc.) because chemo nausea can make your appetite pretty fickle.
I hate to say it, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but you might not be able to stomach drinking water while on chemo.
I had trouble with water and it made me so stinkin’ sad.
Lemon-infused water (using an entire sliced lemon in one glass) was the closest I could get to water and even then it was only a few ounces at a time. But when you’re a huge water drinker like me, that’s enough to take the edge off the withdrawal.
An infusion pitcher or water bottle would be great to keep on hand in case you have similar trouble.
I also found that lemonade came the closest to quenching my thirst for water. My mom told me that my uncle craved lemonade during chemo also…so maybe it’s a thing?
Chemo can really mess up your mouth.
I was so nervous about mouth sores, but I lucked out. I didn’t get full-blown sores but my mouth was extremely tender. Regular toothpaste felt like molten lava in my mouth…it BURNED!
I found that Biotene (the dry mouth toothpaste) was mild enough for my tender mouth. Biotene can be spendy, so another option is to use child toothpaste. I used my kids’ “Sparkle Fun” toothpaste at first, but missed the minty taste and switched to Biotene.
As your cancer center has probably told you, gargling with a salt and baking soda rinse can help prevent and soothe mouth sores. So you want to make sure you have that on hand, as well.
Connection to the World
Everyone’s home life is different, but it is really important to have something (or someone) that can get you out of bed and into the world.
For me, it was my kids (especially young Ladybug) who kept me from crawling into bed and staying there.
For you, it might be some sort of light-duty volunteer work (being careful of your immune system), date night with your significant other, writing thank-you notes for all of the nice things people are doing for you during this horrible time, daily exercise with a walking buddy, or a weekly lunch date with a colleague.
Fighting cancer can be very lonely, even when you are surrounded by people, so getting up and out of the house is really important.
All of you awesome warriors who still get up and go to work while going through chemo are absolutely amazing.
So that’s my list! What you need at home for chemotherapy, what to pack in your chemo bag, and what you need at home to be comfortable after chemo. I hope that you find this list useful!
If any of you have been through chemo (whether receiving treatment yourself or supporting a loved one through it), what else would you add to my list of essentials? Leave me a comment below.
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