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Sharp Health News

How to support a loved one through chemotherapy

June 28, 2016

How to support a loved one through chemotherapy

Lauren Lopez (left) with her mom, Sandra Lopez.

The different reactions and side effects of chemotherapy ran through her head like a shopping list as my mom marked her calendar for her first treatment. The chemo would fight any cancerous cells remaining in her colon after doctors removed a tumor. She would endure this therapy every other week for six months to start — with the possibility of more treatments after review.

I was lucky enough to be there to support her for her first chemotherapy treatment. The unknown was scary, but I managed a small smile as the nurses directed us to the chair where she would receive her first treatment. We sat together for the eight hours it took to administer the full dosage, waiting to learn her body’s reaction.

Like many patients, she was too overwhelmed to ask the nurse every question she wanted answered – that’s where I came in. With a notebook and pen in hand, I recorded the answers the nurses shared and jotted down things I noticed that other seasoned chemotherapy visitors carried with them.

Family members often play an important role in the treatment of a loved one, but oftentimes, neither the patient nor the family member are prepared for what the experience will be like or what help is needed.

Mary Kerr, RN, OCN, lead clinical nurse at the Sharp Grossmont Outpatient Infusion Clinic, shares some general tips for patients and loved ones preparing for a chemotherapy treatment.

“First, you want to set realistic goals. Realize that this is a time in your life to really focus on you and allow others to offer you their support and help as needed,” says Kerr.

Kerr lists three important reminders to prepare for each chemotherapy session. Family members can help ensure that their loved ones:  

  • Stay hydrated 
  • Rest when tired 
  • Track side effects

When preparing for my mom’s first chemotherapy session, I was not sure what to bring other than distractions, like cards to play rummy and her tablet computer to watch funny cat videos.

Kerr recommends seven helpful items — some of which may surprise you — that can help your loved one be more comfortable during chemotherapy sessions.

Slippers or shoes that can be removed easily
For comfort in chair and to slip on for bathroom breaks.

Comfortable clothes
If you have a port, take into account its placement and wear a button-down shirt or lower V-neck for easy access.

Ginger candies or chews
Help with nausea. Bringing light snacks is important to keep up energy once nausea is controlled.

Cards, books, movies, music (with headphones)
Consider you may have trouble focusing on a book or movie without getting dizzy so music or conversation is beneficial.

Eye covers
Helpful for sleeping with lights on — as well as earplugs for sound.

A notebook and pen
For jotting notes and any questions you may have when a nurse is not around.

A favorite blanket and pillow
For comfort and to manage varying temperature throughout the day.

Kerr cautions that a loved one should drive to the first appointment to account for any side effects the patient may feel. 

“Do what you can to help lighten their load, but at the same time, if they are up for some tasks allow them the opportunity to do those,” says Kerr. “It helps us all to feel ‘normal’ when we can do the ordinary things in life. But remember, these may be some of their weakest days ever and even the tasks of calling the doctor for pain med adjustments or nausea control can be too much.”

The biggest thing I learned as support for my mom, at home or from afar on the phone, was that sometimes you need to set aside your emotions to be whatever that person needs — from a shoulder to cry on, to a maid, to a stand-up comedian, to just resting next to a chair while they sleep. 

Though my mom says that, “it’s a hard road to recovery,” understanding how I could support her was the key in helping navigate that road with as much comfort, love and positivity surrounding her as possible.

The shift of supporting someone who has always been there to take care of you is hard to navigate, but no matter how much I am there for her, she is still my hero for fighting this cancer with strength and determination.

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