Family members can offer help and support as you manage the side effects of chemotherapy. But chemotherapy can put a strain on loved ones too, especially caregivers, spouses, and children.
Here’s what you need to know to help your family and friends prepare.
1. How can my treatment and its side effects influence my family?
We all know cancer isn’t contagious. During your treatment, you can and should enjoy the support and company of family and friends. But there will also be days when you won’t feel well enough for company and should take the time to rest and restore your energy.
Family members and friends will want to help, but they may not know exactly how. Think in advance about ways your family or others could make things easier for you.
Perhaps you’d like help in preparing simple and healthy meals. Or maybe you’d like someone to come to your appointments with you or simply provide transportation to your treatment center. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to ask.
2. Are there any health or safety concerns for the family?
Chemotherapy leaves you more vulnerable to infection. It’s a good idea for family members to take extra precautions to avoid getting sick and affecting your health.
Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, keep hand sanitizer available, and have guests remove their shoes before entering your home. Keep household surfaces clean, and take caution in food preparation and cooking.
If a family member does become ill, avoid close contact until they get better.
Few drugs will require you to avoid contact with family or other people. However, there are some steps you can take to help family and pets avoid chemotherapy exposure.
Your body will rid itself of most chemotherapy medications in the first 48 hours after treatment. The drugs may be present in your bodily fluids, including urine, tears, vomit, and blood. Exposure to these fluids can irritate your skin or the skin of others.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers these safety tips for the duration of chemotherapy and the first 48 hours afterward:
- Close the lid before flushing the toilet and flush twice after each use. If possible, you may wish to use a separate bathroom from family members.
- Wash your hands well after using the bathroom or coming into contact with bodily fluids.
- Caregivers should wear two pairs of disposable gloves when cleaning up bodily fluids. If a family member has been exposed, they should wash the area well. Steps should be taken to avoid repeat exposure to bodily fluids.
- Wash soiled sheets, towels, and clothes right away in a separate load. If clothing and linens can’t be washed immediately, place them in a plastic bag.
- Place soiled throwaway items in two plastic bags before putting them into the trash.
3. How do I manage my relationships during chemotherapy?
Family members, friends, and even close co-workers may have difficult days too. At times, they may feel especially worried or stressed by your diagnosis and your treatment. A cancer diagnosis can change family dynamics, roles, and priorities.
Social activities and everyday tasks that seemed important before may seem less so now. Spouses and children may find themselves as caregivers. They may need to help around the house in ways they weren’t used to doing before.
It’s important to remember that caregivers and other family members, particularly children, may need extra support too. Read our Healthline News story about children whose parents have cancer.
Communication is key
Keeping the lines of communication open can be helpful, especially with those who are closest to you. If you aren’t able to express yourself verbally, consider writing a letter or sending an email.
This allows you to keep everyone up to date without having to worry about updating each person individually. You can also stay in contact during times when you aren’t feeling up to visitors or phone calls.
If social media isn’t for you, consider other ways to keep family and friends updated. Find a gentle way to let loved ones know what you need, whether that’s extra assistance or time to yourself.
4. How can I cope with cultural and interpersonal dynamics during chemotherapy?
It’s helpful to remember that not everyone undergoing cancer and its treatment will approach it in the same way.
You may want to surround yourself with family and friends, or you may want to withdraw. Your approach to treatment may be influenced by your personality, as well as religious and cultural beliefs.
Your family will have their own ways of understanding and coping with the challenges of cancer and its treatment.
Some family members may experience powerful emotions, including fear, anxiety, or anger. Sometimes you may feel yourself getting lost in family decision-making related to your cancer.
It may help to sit down with family members and talk about these issues. However, at times you may find it easier to talk to others outside the home. It may be useful to talk with people who are currently undergoing chemotherapy or who’ve gone through it in the past.
Many hospitals offer support groups to lend advice and support through treatment. Support groups are also available for family members and caregivers.
Many people find that online support groups offer a ready source for encouragement and practical advice as well. There are even programs that partner a survivor with a person undergoing treatment and offer one-on-one support.
5. How do I care for my children during chemotherapy?
You may wonder how much you should share with your children. This will probably depend on their ages. Younger children may not need as many details as older children. But children of all ages will realize something is wrong, whether you tell them or not.
The ACS recommends that kids of all ages be told the basics. This includes:
- what type of cancer you have
- where in the body it’s located
- what will happen with your treatment
- how you expect your lives to change
Caring for children is a challenge on a good day. It can be especially hard when you’re struggling with your own anxiety, fatigue, or other side effects of cancer treatment. Consider ways you might get help with child care responsibilities when you need it.
Talk with your doctors and nurses. Also talk with social workers, psychologists, and others, especially if you’re a single parent and lack support at home. They can help you find other resources.
6. Are my children at a greater risk of developing breast cancer?
You may wonder whether your daughters are at risk of developing breast cancer. Only about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are hereditary.
Most genetic breast cancers are related to mutations in one of two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Mutations in these genes come with a very high risk of developing breast cancer. Genetic testing may be recommended if you have a family history of breast cancer.