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What to Expect During a Chemotherapy Session

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Updated September 01, 2012

Question: What to Expect During a Chemotherapy Session
I was recently diagnosed with cancer (I have stage II breast cancer) and learned that I will be having chemotherapy for a few months as part of my treatment after I have surgery. I have never seen anyone receive chemotherapy and am curious about what it's like? I will be going to a cancer treatment center and know I will be there for a few hours every time I receive my treatment. Can I bring things to do? Is it okay to sleep? Will I be around a lot of people or will it be a private area? Can you tell me exactly what to expect when I go for chemotherapy every week?
Answer: Many new patients are apprehensive about the chemotherapy experience. For most, it is like charting into unknown territory. After all, having chemotherapy isn't exactly something we all have seen or personally experienced. For the average person, knowledge about what happens during a chemotherapy session comes from a movie or television show, which is not the most reliable source!

On a typical chemotherapy day, you will check in and may have a short visit with your oncologist before the session begins. You will be weighed, your blood pressure will be taken, and your temperature will be recorded. Your doctor may also want to check your blood cell counts to ensure they are high enough to receive chemotherapy. During your first visit, your doctor may or may not. However, at subsequent visits, you can expect to have your blood drawn before every chemo session. Most often, an IV catheter inserted (unless you have a chemotherapy port) and blood will be drawn from that access point.

Once the doctor reviews your lab results and deems your levels high enough to receive chemotherapy, a nurse will begin your infusion. Depending on what type of chemotherapy drugs you are prescribed, your doctor may order medications to help relieve side effects like nausea and anxiety. They will be given intravenously and prior to your chemotherapy drugs.

Chemotherapy sessions usually last a few hours. You may be given chemo in a private area or in a bay (a wide open space that accommodates several people). Patients usually bring a wide array of things to do, from iPads to knitting materials. Some bring a friend along to keep them company, while others may choose to be alone and take a short nap.

Once your infusion has ended, the IV catheter will be removed. Your chemotherapy nurse will check your vitals again and discuss any side effects you may experience. Your doctor may also send you home with prescriptions to help combat treatment side effects. It is important to have them filled as soon as possible before returning home. You may feel fine after chemotherapy and suddenly begin to experience treatment side effects like nausea or stomach upset. Having these medications on hand before you experience side effects will help tremendously.

During your first few chemotherapy sessions, you may want to arrange for someone to pick up when the session ends. Prior to your first few infusions, you won't know exactly how the drugs will make you feel and you may not be able to drive. If you cannot arrange for transportation, consider taking a taxi, enlist the help of organizations like the American Cancer Society. Local chapters often offer transportation to and from treatment centers at low or no cost to you.

Once you have your first session under your belt, I am sure you will feel more at ease about the logistics of having an infusion. If you have any questions before, during, or after, don't hesitate to call your doctor or chemotherapy nurse or doctor.

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