FAQ: Caregiving During Chemotherapy

cancer patient in headscarf is comforted by a caregiver sitting next to her

Taking care of someone getting chemotherapychemo for short - can involve helping to make treatment decisions, making medical appointments, driving to treatments, preparing meals, doing laundry and other chores, providing companionship, comfort, and support, and many other tasks. Knowing what to expect as a caregiver allows you to be helpful while taking care of your own needs too.

If you have more questions after reading this article, talk to the cancer care team. You can also call our Cancer Helpline at 1-800-227-2345.

Q: How does chemo treat cancer?

A: Chemo kills cells that grow fast, such as cancer cells. It may be used to keep cancer from spreading, make it grow slower, kill cancer cells that may have spread to other places in the body, shrink tumors to make side effects better, or cure cancer.

Chemo can also affect normal cells that grow fast, including the ones that make blood, skin, and hair. Unlike the cancer cells, most normal cells are able to fix themselves and recover after chemo treatment ends.

Q: What kinds of chemo are used to treat cancer?

A: There are more than 100 different chemo drugs used today. Which drug someone gets depends on the type and stage of cancer, and other factors or problems a patient might have. Chemo can be given through a vein, called an infusion or IV (intravenous). Chemo can also come in liquid or pill form that’s swallowed, or it can be injected as a shot or rubbed onto the skin.

Q: How long does chemo treatment last?

A: How long a patient gets chemotherapy varies widely and depends on the type and stage of cancer, the goal of treatment, and other factors that might affect how a patient responds to the treatment. It may be given once a day, once a week, once a month, or more than one day in a row. It’s often given in cycles with breaks between treatments to give the body a chance to rest and heal.

Q: What side effects can chemo have?

A: Chemo can cause many different side effects depending on the drug, the dose, other medical problems a person has, and how they react to it. Most side effects go away over time after treatments end, but some can last longer. The cancer care team can help you know what to expect and how to deal with them. The more common chemo side effects include:

  • Fatigue. Cancer and chemo can cause extreme tiredness. For some people, fatigue is overwhelming and hard to deal with. It can last for weeks or months after treatment ends. Talk to the cancer care team for ideas that might help manage fatigue at home, such as healthy eating, brief napping, and taking short walks.
  • Low Blood Counts. Chemo may cause a loss of blood cells. Low red blood cells, called anemia, can make someone tired so they need more rest. Low white blood cells, called neutropenia, can raise the risk of infection. Protect the person you’re caring for from germs by washing your hands often and limiting their contact with other people. Low platelets can lead to bruising and bleeding. Protect the skin from cuts. Don’t give over-the-counter or other medications without first checking with the cancer care team. Read more about signs that you should call for help.
  • Nausea and vomiting. If the doctor prescribes drugs to help ease nausea and vomiting, it’s important to make sure the person you’re caring for follows the instructions. If nausea does happen, eating small snacks often throughout the day may help. If the person can’t keep liquids down or has been vomiting, call the doctor.
  • Hair loss. Some chemo drugs cause hair loss. Ask the cancer care team if the kind of chemo being given will cause hair to fall out, and when it might happen. With that information, you can help the person you’re caring for get ready. They can cut or shave their hair, decide to go bald, or shop for head coverings. Find out if their insurance company will cover wigs or scarves.
  • Mouth problems. Some chemo drugs can cause dryness and sores in the mouth and throat. Going to the dentist before getting chemo is a good idea if possible. Soft foods may help if it hurts to eat. Ask the cancer care team about ways to help.
  • Emotional changes. It’s normal for people getting chemo to be moody, and they may feel anxious, depressed, afraid, angry, frustrated, alone, or helpless. It can help to talk to other people going through the same thing. Ask the cancer care team or the American Cancer Society about in-person or online support groups.

Not every person gets every side effect. If the person you’re caring for is having trouble, call the cancer care team. You can read about more cancer side effects on cancer.org.

Q: Is it safe to be around someone getting chemo?

A: It usually takes a few days for the body to get rid of the drugs after a round of chemo is given. During this time, wear disposable gloves when cleaning up any body fluids, including urine, stool, tears, and vomit, and then wash your hands with soap and water. If chemo is being taken by mouth, talk to the cancer care team about how to be careful when touching the pills.

It’s best to wash bed sheets and clothes in the washing machine separately from other clothes. Throw away adult diapers and sanitary pads by placing them in 2 plastic bags and throw them away with the regular trash. If you touch body fluids by mistake, wash your hands well with soap and water and ask the cancer care team for advice.

Q: How can I take care of myself while caring for someone else?

A: Taking care of someone getting chemo can be a stressful time. Studies show that caregivers often neglect their own health. Remember that as a caregiver you must take care of yourself in order to give good care. That means eating well, getting enough exercise, getting medical care including cancer screenings, and getting support when you need it.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.


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