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Preparing for your first cancer treatment

You can take the edge off your first day of treatment by focusing on stress-relieving techniques and being as comfortable as possible.

From Harvard Health Publishing

No one wants to hear the words, “You have cancer.” For many people, this confirmation of your diagnosis can hit hard before there’s a treatment plan in place. By the time you’re headed to your first cancer treatment, you should know the type of cancer you’re dealing with, its stage, and have a care team and treatment plan in place. That can be reassuring, as can the thought that you’re actually doing something about the problem you’ve probably been wholly focused on since going in for your first test or biopsy. 

Some common treatment options for cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, and other oral or intravenous treatments. Your oncologist or another person on your care team should meet with you in advance to prepare you for the treatment you’ll receive. However, you can also take some steps at home to make sure you arrive feeling prepared and calm on your first day of treatment.

Do something you enjoy prior to going to the hospital

Try to set aside some time to do something you enjoy before heading to your first treatment. If you thrive on activity, head out for a walk or run. Get together with friends or family to have breakfast together or indulge in a favorite craft or hobby. Stressing out about your upcoming treatment won’t help; however, spending time doing something you enjoy may help ease the strain of what’s to come.

Try meditation, yoga, or another stress-reliever

Mindfulness meditation can be as simple as finding a quiet place and concentrating on your breathing. Focus on the sensation of air flowing into your nose and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale. While staying focused on your breathing, allow yourself to notice sounds, feelings, or ideas. Embrace each thought as it comes into your head without judging. Each time your mind starts to race, return to your breathing. This simple act of breath focus may help ease your mind and make you feel less anxious about your treatment.

Make a plan for when you come home

Not all cancer treatment makes you sick. Even if yours doesn’t, it’s still helpful to plan ahead to the moment you arrive home after treatment. Ask family or friends for help preparing a meal that’s easy to heat up when you get home and clear your schedule if you can so that you can sink into the couch after you get home. Even if you feel OK post-treatment, the mere act of going to the hospital or treatment center can be emotionally exhausting.

Make yourself comfortable

Hospitals and infusion suites are frequently kept at cool temperatures. If you envision a long appointment (such as an infusion, which may last for several hours), bring a favorite blanket and a pillow. Many chemotherapy infusions include drugs that will make you drowsy. If you’re comfortable enough to drift off to sleep, the time may pass more quickly. 

Distract yourself

Download a new podcast or queue up a playlist of your favorite music to bring with you. While you don’t want to be so tuned into your headphones that you miss important directives from your care team or other hospital staff, you may find that music or a podcast helps you relax and feel more at ease.

Stay hydrated and bring a snack

Dehydration can cause headaches and fatigue, and can also make it harder to place an I.V. Drink water before you arrive, and bring a water bottle with you to sip. You may also want to bring a snack or small meal if you anticipate a long day of treatment.

Request a ride to and from the hospital

Some people like to be surrounded by friends and loved ones during cancer treatment. Others prefer to go alone. Even if you’d rather go to treatments solo, it can be hugely helpful to have a friend or family member taking care of your transport to and from the hospital. Allow someone else to stress about traffic and subway schedules so you can focus on your own challenges.

Keep a journal

Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be therapeutic. It can also be helpful to keep notes on your physical condition. Many treatments are set up to repeat every few weeks or months. If you have chemo every three weeks, for example, you might notice a pattern of feeling good the first few days after your first infusion, then having a few tough days, then finishing out each cycle with a week or two of relatively “good” days. It can be helpful to look back at previous cycles in order to help you plan for future cycles.