Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home: A Guide for Patients and Families

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It is often just called "chemo." The drugs are given in the form of injections or pills. They enter the bloodstream and reach all areas of the body. Chemo may be used along with surgery and other types of treatment in hopes of a cure, to get cancer into remission, or as a way to relieve symptoms in advanced cancer.

Another way to use these drugs is to inject them directly into the affected area of the body. This is called "regional chemo," and it is only used for certain types of cancer. It allows a higher dose of medicine to go right to the cancer site.

Side effects from chemo depend on the type of drug, how much is used, how often it is given, and for how long. Side effects can include short-term hair loss, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting, to name a few. There are drugs and other treatments to help with chemo side effects. It is important to know that many patients have few or no side effects. No one can predict who will and who will not. You may be among those who have few problems.

What the patient can do

  • Find out what chemo drugs you will be taking, how they will be given, and how often and how long you will get them.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse about side effects that might happen with the drugs you are taking and what you can do to prevent or reduce them.
  • Ask about things you should or should not do during chemo.
  • Talk with your doctor about how chemo will affect your plans to have children. (See the section on sexuality in this booklet.)
  • Do not get pregnant while you are getting chemo. Ask your doctor how long you should wait after chemo to try to get pregnant.
  • Learn how to contact your doctor or nurse during non-office hours.
  • Find out whether you should take vitamins or supplements during your chemo.
  • Before chemo starts, get all prescriptions filled and be sure you understand how to use each one.
  • Go to every scheduled appointment.
  • Report all side effects to your doctor.
  • If you have nausea and vomiting, see the related sections in this booklet, and talk to your doctor.
  • If you feel fatigued or tired, see the section on fatigue in this booklet.
  • If you are suffering from diarrhea or constipation, see the related sections in this booklet.
  • See the section in this booklet on blood counts if your hemoglobin, platelet, or white blood cell counts are low.
  • For hair loss, you can wear hats, cotton scarves, or a wig. In cold weather, cover your head and ears. (See the section on hair loss in this booklet for more information.)
  • Eat as much as you can. If you're not hungry, see the section in this booklet on appetite.
  • If you have a fever, see the related section in this booklet.

What caregivers can do

  • Go with the patient to appointments, especially on chemo days.
  • If you are unable to drive or go for appointments, talk with the social worker or nurse at the doctor’s office to get help.
  • Know how to get in touch with the patient's doctor, even when the office is closed.
  • If the patient is unable to get to an appointment, talk with the doctor or nurse as soon as possible, and plan what to do next.
  • Be sure that someone is with the patient during the first couple of days after each chemo treatment, since more help may be needed at those times.
  • Help watch for side effects and symptoms, and see the sections related to those side effects in this booklet.

Call the doctor if the patient:

  • has any side effect that lasts more than a day
  • has a fever of more than 100.5° F when taken by mouth
  • has any bleeding
  • has pain or redness at the IV site where the chemo was given
  • becomes unable to swallow or keep down chemo pills or liquids

For more in-depth information on chemo, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345. You may want to ask for a copy of Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families and/or Oral Chemotherapy: What You Need to Know. You can also get information on each chemotherapy drug you will be taking and find out more about the type of cancer you have. This information is also available on cancer.org.


Last Medical Review: 11/12/2009
Last Revised: 11/12/2009