Published on November 12, 2020
Oncology Nurse and Patient Share Tips for Chemotherapy Infusion
The cancer journey is a marathon, not a sprint, as patients going through treatment know all too well. And standing at the starting line can feel overwhelming. To help you prepare for your first chemotherapy infusion appointment, we asked oncology nurse Kathy Bendle, RN, and breast cancer survivor Beckie Gladfelter to share their advice.
Chemotherapy Infusion: IV or Port?
Prior to infusion day, you should have a conversation with your medical team to discuss how the chemotherapy drugs will be delivered. One option is to have an IV infusion in your arm or hand. Another is to have a simple procedure done where a medical device called a port is put directly into a vein in your chest. While an IV will need to be redone each time, a port can stay in place for weeks, months or even years, and provides direct access for blood draws and infusing medications or fluids.
“Ports are very convenient,” said Kathy, who works at an outpatient infusion center in Maryland. “It reduces the amount of stick times; it’s easy for blood draws.”
“Some chemotherapy agents are very caustic to your veins,” Kathy added, so the port is helpful for that reason too. Getting a port also enables some patients to have infusions done in the comfort of their own home with the help of a home healthcare nurse.
Whichever method you and your medical team decide is right for you, talk about it ahead of time so you know what to expect on infusion day.
Questions for your Medical Team
- What kind of chemotherapy or other infusion am I getting?
- How does chemotherapy work?
- How often will I need this treatment?
- What side effects should I expect?
- How soon do side effects present themselves?
- Will I lose my hair?
- If I lose my hair, how soon after the first treatment should I expect that to happen?
- What can I do to mentally or physically prepare for infusion days?
- What are the long-term effects of my treatment? 2
A Patient’s Day at the Chemotherapy Infusion Center
On the day of, expect to have a physical exam, your blood pressure and temperature taken, and your respiration measured. Your oncologist will also likely review the results of any recent tests. Doctors want to see that their patient’s blood count numbers are within a healthy range to ensure that the patient is strong enough to endure treatment.
“A patient would come in to the infusion center and have blood drawn. Most patients see their oncologist and review the blood work, before returning to the infusion room,” Kathy said.
Kathy typically works with three to four patients at a time and serves as their primary nurse, along with other nurses who may administer medications such as Benadryl, to counteract any allergic reactions, and steroids or anti-nausea medicine.
Warm Blankets and Comfort Food
For breast cancer survivor and author Beckie Gladfelter, getting the port was a minor surgery compared to the double mastectomy she had in 2015. Infusions can run as briefly as 30 minutes or last for continuous hours, depending on the prescription. Beckie’s infusions lasted four hours each time. She offered some tips for making the experience more comfortable.
“Definitely ask for a warm blanket,” Beckie said. The Benadryl made her sleepy and the chemotherapy made her feel cold, so the blanket helped her sleep in her recliner on infusion days. Most rooms have a television too if you’d rather watch TV than sleep or read.
“Some patients bring their own comfortable blanket or pillow,” Kathy said.
If you are hungry, eat comfort foods. Beckie’s favorites were a few bites of macaroni and cheese and sometimes she would sip a milkshake. This can be a challenge if the chemotherapy you’re on changes the way things taste or makes your mouth sensitive to extreme temperatures. Experiment with different foods to find what’s best for you.
Kathy also makes sure her patients drink enough water to offset dehydration and avoid constipation.
“We can’t stress hydrating with water enough, pre- and post-chemotherapy,” she said.
Beckie agrees and suggests adding flavors to your water to entice yourself to drink more of it. She said adding lemon flavoring to her water helped a lot.
The Role of Care Partners
Before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) changed life as we know it, patients were encouraged to bring a care partner with them to their appointments.
“It’s a lot of information we are sharing with patients. It’s nice to have someone else there,” Kathy said.
Beckie usually brought her husband Mark. Their sons were 3, 5, and 7 years old at the time and were curious about the process. One day, the family took a field trip to the infusion center so the boys could see first-hand what infusion day was all about. This was especially important for their oldest, Jack, who imagined Beckie getting chemotherapy from a medicine dropper like the kids use at home when they are sick.
“It’s a real education for the kids and adults,” Beckie said.
Staying Well and on Schedule
Getting a cancer diagnosis can feel like a full-time job. For those who already have a 9 to 5 job, it’s a lot to take on in addition to working. For others, they build it into their existing schedules.
“We provide calendars for patients,” Kathy said, to track chemotherapy and radiation treatments, follow-up visits with doctors, and blood work.
Most importantly, “what we stress to patients and their families, is to be your best advocate.” If something doesn’t feel right, or you’re having a side effect, let your doctor know.
“Most oncologists are extremely open to suggestions and want to know if you’re having any side effects of discomfort,” Kathy added.
Also, if you’re doing research on your own and want to talk to your doctor about something, go for it. Your cancer care team is at the ready to get you back on your feet.
Ringing the Bell
For Beckie, her most memorable day at the infusion center was her last one. Her infusion center has a bell that patients can ring to signal their last treatment! When Beckie rang the bell on that last day, a team of nurses came up to her singing a song that made her eyes fill with grateful tears. The care and education that the nurses provided on each infusion day was so important and it all culminated in that special moment signaling the end of chemotherapy.
If you are just starting out on your cancer journey, know that you are not alone. There are others like Kathy and Beckie who will share their experiences with you and help you navigate the road ahead. And here at Patient Power, we’ll continue to provide you with the latest cancer news and updates to help you make informed decisions about your health.
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- Gladfelter, B. My Warrior Mommy: Our Breast Cancer Journey.
- Getting a chemotherapy infusion step by step. Breastcancer.org
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