8 Things to Know Before Your First Chemo Treatment

It's only natural that you would have questions and maybe even worries prior to your first chemotherapy treatment. Your care team will discuss your chemotherapy plan in advance, which can help ease your anxiety. Still, there's a lot to learn and absorb.

Here are eight things to know so you feel more confident and prepared going into your first chemo session.

Chemotherapy patient

Simon Jarratt / Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

What, When, and Why

Every chemotherapy infusion includes a mix of drugs. Some are cancer-killing drugs while others are medications that help ease side effects.

If you're not already clear about the answers to the following questions about all of the drugs you will receive, ask your healthcare provider:

  • What is this medication?
  • How does it help kill cancer cells?
  • What side effects may it have?
  • How will I feel after taking the medication?
  • How should I cope with it?
  • Who do I call if I have problems?

While some infusions take minutes, others take hours. A course may take days or weeks. Ask how you should plan for the treatments that await you.

Bring a "Chemo Buddy"

You definitely don't have to go to your first chemo appointment alone. In fact, there are many reasons to have a "chemo buddy" with you for this session and future ones.

First, you might also be prescribed medication to take in advance of having chemo. Having someone drive you to your session can be helpful if the medication makes you tired.

Bringing a friend or family member means you have someone there who can focus on taking notes on instructions you are given and remembering questions you wanted to ask. (It's easy to become overwhelmed or distracted, particularly when chemo is new to you.)

They can also help you pass the time, which can be particularly helpful for lengthy treatments.

And while you will be monitored throughout your treatment, the team won't have eyes on you the entire time. A chemo buddy can keep a close eye out for reactions, like a rash or facial flushing, and inform practitioners right away should they occur.

Stay Hydrated

Chemotherapy drugs are very drying to your body's tissues. Becoming dehydrated may cause you to feel worse overall.

Staying well hydrated can help your body purge waste while reducing the likelihood of problems, such as fatigue and headaches.

Right after an infusion, it's best to drink 8 ounces of water every hour until bedtime. Avoid caffeine, as it can be dehydrating.

In rare cases, such as severe kidney disease or heart failure, it can be detrimental to drink too much water. So get specific hydration guidance from your oncologist if you have any other serious medical conditions.

Eat Light

Two to three hours before an infusion, eat a light, high-fiber snack.

Chemo drugs tend to slow the movement of your digestive tract (peristalsis), so whatever you eat may be in your system for longer than usual. This often causes difficult bowel movements.

The drugs commonly used to prevent nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy can be constipating as well. Between staying hydrated and eating fiber, you should gain the upper hand on constipation.

Prepare for Fatigue

You may feel tired or very fatigued the day after your first treatment. This differs from tiredness that can be cured with sleep. It may feel like profound lack of energy you can't seem to shake.

Plan on resting so your body can begin the recovery process. And if you feel ​​mentally foggy from the medications you've taken, let your healthcare provider know.

Keep in mind that the majority of the side effects are temporary and that you will feel better soon.

Expect Pre-Chemo Blood Tests

Before each round of chemo, you will have a blood test called a complete blood count (CBC). This is done to get the levels of blood cells produced by the bone marrow that can be affected by chemotherapy.

Tests are a normal part of the entire chemo process, and results give your healthcare team important information about your health status.

For example:

  • Red blood cells and hemoglobin will be measured to see if you have anemia, which can lead to fatigue and lightheadedness.
  • Your white blood cell count will tell your healthcare provider if you have neutropenia, a deficiency white blood cells known as neutrophils. This can put you at risk for infection.

Depending on your results, your oncologist may recommend delaying chemotherapy or using specific treatments to improve your values before starting.

Results also factor in calculating the strength of your chemo doses.

You May Need Post-Chemo Medications

You may need to take post-chemo medications. If you can, have those prescriptions filled in advance of your first chemo session to ensure you have them at the ready when you need them.

Medications used to control nausea and vomiting differ. Some are taken on a schedule to prevent chemotherapy-induced nausea. To be most effective, take these medications before you feel sick.

Other nausea medications are used on an as-needed basis, when you are already feeling nauseated or vomiting.

Make sure you get clear instructions on how and when to take your medications.

Tracking Your Side Effects Is Helpful

If you have side effects from chemotherapy that are bothersome—such as nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, rash, swelling, or unusual pain around the injection site—your healthcare team should be made aware of them as soon as possible.

They will want to know how often you're having problems, how severe they are, and how you're coping with them.

For your own benefit, it can be helpful to write down any symptoms you experience right after a treatment. Have a dedicated note in your smartphone or a notebook you can keep hand for this purpose.

Summary

Following these eight tips throughout your chemotherapy journey can help prevent many treatment-related issues. Always discuss any new or worsening symptoms promptly with your healthcare provider.

Additionally, keep track of any remedies that help your symptoms (for example, using prescribed anti-nausea medication, taking time to rest, or drinking extra fluids). Such a list can come in handy later, if you experience the same issue after a future treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Going to your first chemotherapy appointment can be scary; fear and uncertainty have a way of rattling even the most self-assured people. Remember that you'll have the support of your healthcare team. And you'll be closely monitored throughout each session.

Once you have a few appointments under your belt, you should feel more comfortable about the process.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is a chemo session?

    A chemo session can take a few minutes to eight or more hours. This depends on several factors like your type of cancer and the drugs you're receiving.

  • How often do you receive chemo?

    A "chemo cycle" usually takes two to six weeks. You can undergo two (or more) chemo sessions in one cycle. You may receive chemo drugs in one day, over several days in a row, or continuously during each period. You may go for a treatment weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly.

  • Is it normal to sleep a lot after chemo?

    Absolutely. The most commonly reported side effect after receiving chemotherapy is fatigue. Give yourself time for extra rest and sleep in the days after a session. Tell your healthcare provider if your fatigue begins to affect your ability to function or complete basic tasks, like bathing.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net. What to Expect When Having Chemotherapy.

  2. Oncolink. Preventing dehydration during cancer treatment.

  3. McQuade RM, Stojanovska V, Abalo R, Bornstein JC, Nurgali K. Chemotherapy-induced constipation and diarrhea: Pathophysiology, current and emerging treatmentsFront Pharmacol. 2016;7:414. doi:10.3389/fphar.2016.00414.

  4. National Health Service. 10 medical reasons for feeling tired.

  5. Newburger PE, Dale DC. Evaluation and management of patients with isolated neutropeniaSemin Hematol. 2013;50(3):198–206. doi:10.1053/j.seminhematol.2013.06.010.

  6. MD Anderson Cancer Center. What to expect on your first day of chemotherapy.

  7. National Cancer Institute. Fatigue—Patient version.

Additional Reading
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net. Chemotherapy
Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
Learn about our editorial process