What to Expect on Your First Day of Chemotherapy

Chemo can take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours.

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“Patients get very nervous when they hear that they’re being advised to get chemotherapy,” says Ashish Saxena, MD, oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. One of the best ways to help you alleviate concerns about chemotherapy is to make sure you’re mentally and physically prepared for your treatment journey.

To prepare, be sure to ask your doctor about any questions you have about chemotherapy, including what chemotherapy is, what the side effects of chemotherapy are, and what to expect after chemotherapy treatment.

There are many different types of chemotherapy, and each hospital or facility is different, so you may also want to ask you doctor what you can expect on your first day and how best to prepare.

Here are some starting points to help guide the conversation:

How is chemotherapy given? 

Before your chemotherapy starts, you will likely get your blood drawn. This may occur a day or two before the actual chemo session, according to Dr. Saxena.

On the day of your chemotherapy session, someone on your team (such as a nurse practitioner) will go over expectations for the day and bring you to a chemotherapy suite, which is like a cubicle where you can sit comfortably and possibly watch TV or do other activities while the chemo is administered. You might receive pre-medications, which help prevent side effects like nausea.

The way your chemotherapy is administered depends on the drug your doctor recommends, but most of the time it’s given through a thin needle that is placed in a vein in your hand or lower arm.

Your nurse will insert a needle at the start of your treatment and remove it when the chemotherapy is over. Intravenous (IV) chemotherapy may also be given through catheters or ports (which may stay in your body for longer than the day’s treatment to make future sessions easier).

“Once the treatment is done [and] the drugs are given, the IV comes out, and the patient can then go home,” says Dr. Saxena. Your doctor or nurse might also talk with you again about side effects. They may give you medication and tips to manage side effects.

What should I bring to my chemotherapy appointment? 

“I think it’s important that the patient knows when they’re coming in to expect a very long day or not,” says Dr. Saxena. For example, patients may need to bring in medications that they normally take during the middle of the day.

On your first day of chemotherapy, you may want to bring a family member or friend—someone to support you, keep you company, and help you remember information.

Your chemo can take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours. If you’re going to be there for a while, you may want to bring a few personal items to make your treatment time more comfortable, such as a music player, books, movies, games, or a blanket. Also, make sure you eat something before treatment. You may be permitted to bring food with you, but be sure to ask your doctor or someone from the facility first.

How often will I get chemotherapy treatments? 

How often you get chemotherapy and how long your treatment lasts depends on many factors: the kind of cancer you have, the goals of the treatment, the drugs being used, and how your body responds to them.

You may get treatments daily, weekly, or monthly, but they’re usually given in on-and-off cycles. For example, you may get chemotherapy the first two weeks and then have a week off, making it a cycle that will start over every three weeks. This time off allows your body to build healthy new cells and regain its strength.

Going through chemotherapy is tough, but knowing what to expect can help you feel more comfortable—mentally and physically—during your treatment journey.