What to expect when a loved one is going through chemotherapy

Supporting a friend or family member through chemotherapy can be difficult. We look at what to expect and how to help.

Watching a loved one go through chemotherapy can leave you feeling powerless – and it can be hard to know how to help. 
 
Familiarising yourself with some of chemo’s common side effects and learning how to lend a hand can help you to support your friend or family member through the ups and downs of treatment.
 
Most people’s experience of their treatment will be different, says Dr Chris Dalton, Medical Director of Bupa Australia. “There are so many different types of chemotherapy, and they can all have different side effects, so it’s highly variable.”
 
Some possible side effects include:
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • hair loss
  • weight loss due to of lack of appetite
  • gastrointestinal upsets, such as diarrhoea, cramps, abdominal pain
  • fertility issues
  • depression and anxiety. 

Providing practical support

Preparing food for friends and family has long been people’s way of showing support. When someone close to you is undergoing chemo, providing food is also a highly practical way to help. If your loved one is experiencing nausea or loss of appetite, you can help by preparing nutritious, easy-to-eat meals and snacks. You could also organise a roster, so that different friends bring dinner throughout the course of treatment.
 
It’s important for anyone having chemotherapy  to keep up their fluid intake as this can help prevent constipation. High-protein smoothies and bone-broth-based soups are good ways to provide extra hydration and nutrients. Preparing food that they can take to medical appointments and chemo sessions can also be helpful.
 
Fatigue caused by their chemo treatment can make it hard for some people to manage everyday tasks. You could offer to do the weekly supermarket shop for them and stock up the fridge, to look after the kids (if your friend or loved one is a parent), or to spend some time gardening or cleaning the house.
 
Gentle physical activity  can help ease some of the physical symptoms, like constipation and fatigue, and can also have a positive impact on mental health. You could offer support by regularly joining your friend or family member by  walking together for example.
lady with cancer being looked after

Providing emotional support

People with cancer can experience emotional health conditions , like depression and anxiety, during and after chemotherapy. Dr Dalton explains: “Most cancer patients experience psychological issues when they’re concerned about their prognosis and what’s going to happen, the side effects of the treatment and so on.”
 
“Hospitals have teams to manage these sorts of issues, so patients have access to psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers,” adds Dr Dalton. Your role may involve encouraging your loved one to take advantage of the professional support that’s available when these emotional issues arise.
 
Another important way to support someone who’s going through chemotherapy is to attend medical appointments with them, says Dr Dalton. “It’s very helpful for a family member to go to doctor visits with the patient because patients often don’t remember what they’ve been told, and they don’t remember to ask certain questions that they wanted the answers to.” Having a second pair of ears to relay the information back to them later is a useful strategy.
  
Support doesn’t have to be a series of grand gestures. It’s the small things that make tough times easier and show someone that you care. Being reliable and flexible, and taking the initiative without being overbearing can help make the rough ride of chemotherapy a little smoother.
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