Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment. It works by using strong drugs to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide more quickly than many healthy cell types.
However, it’s still possible for chemotherapy to target healthy cells that also divide quickly. Some examples include cells in the digestive tract, immune system, and hair follicles.
When this happens, it can lead to side effects like lowered immunity, hair loss, and nausea or vomiting. There are certain precautions that you can take to limit your side effects and help make treatment safer.
We’ll explore nine things to avoid during chemotherapy treatment. Then, we’ll discuss a few things that are important to do during chemotherapy as well as how to find support.
First, let’s explore some things not to do during chemotherapy treatment. Avoiding these things can help to make your treatment safer and more tolerable.
1. Contact with body fluids after treatment
Your body typically breaks down and passes chemotherapy drugs during the 48 to 72 hours after your treatment. Because of this, it’s possible for these drugs to be present in various body fluids, including urine, stool, and vomit during this time.
Because chemotherapy drugs can affect healthy cells, coming into contact with them in various body fluids can be potentially harmful to yourself or others. That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid contact with body fluids that may contain them.
Here are a few tips for a avoiding contact:
- Wash your hands. Thoroughly wash and dry your hands after using the bathroom or after coming into contact with any body fluids that may contain chemotherapy drugs.
- Flush twice. Flush the toilet twice after using the bathroom, and make sure that the lid is down to prevent splashing.
- Wash soiled fabrics. Promptly wash any clothes or sheets that have had contact with body fluids. Wash them separately from other laundry, and use the warm setting on your washing machine and normal laundry detergent.
- Clean after you’ve been sick. If you vomit, clean any containers or soiled areas with warm, soapy water and dry thoroughly.
Your doctor will know which bodily fluids may be affected by chemotherapy drugs. Be sure to ask so that you can take appropriate precautions.
2. Overextending yourself
A common side effect of chemotherapy is feeling tired or fatigued. Because of this, it’s important not to overextend yourself so that you don’t become too exhausted.
Some potential ways to do this include:
- Resting up. Try to get at least 8 hours of sleep each night. It may also be helpful to take a few short naps throughout the day, if necessary.
- Asking for help. Reach out to loved ones for assistance with daily activities, such as helping with household chores, running errands, or driving you to medical appointments.
- Reducing your hours. If possible, it may be beneficial to reduce your working hours while you’re on chemotherapy.
- Arranging childcare if you have children. See if you can arrange for childcare on the day that you receive chemotherapy and possibly for a few days afterward.
Because chemotherapy can weaken the immune system, you’re more susceptible to infections. There are many strategies that you can use to help avoid getting an infection, such as:
- Wash your hands. Try to wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water. This is particularly important after using the bathroom, after handling raw foods, and before eating.
- Carry hand sanitizer. Carry hand sanitizer with you in case you don’t have access to soap and water. Sanitizing wipes can also be used to wipe down public surfaces like door handles and ATM buttons.
- Avoid people who are sick. Aim to stay away from people who are currently sick with an infection until they get better.
- Get a flu shot (with your doctor’s OK). Receiving a flu shot can help prevent you from contracting the flu. However, ask your doctor first before receiving any vaccines when receiving chemotherapy.
- Stay out of crowds. Germs can spread more easily in crowded places, so try to avoid these locations during chemotherapy.
- Store food properly. Promptly store any items that need to be refrigerated or frozen, including leftovers. Don’t allow them to sit out at room temperature.
- Use care during personal grooming. Cuts and scrapes can allow germs to enter your body. Use care while doing personal care activities like shaving, trimming your nails, or brushing your teeth.
4. Large meals
It’s still important to eat, even if you don’t feel like you’re very hungry. Not eating enough can lead to weight loss and can make fatigue worse.
However, try to avoid eating single large meals. Instead, focus on having several small meals throughout the day. It may be helpful to set up a daily meal schedule so you can easily remember what and when to eat.
Having a large meal may also make you feel very full, making nausea worse.
5. Raw or undercooked foods
Avoid eating raw or undercooked:
This also includes unpasteurized milk or cheese.
If you need to handle these items, wash your hands thoroughly after doing so. Also be sure to clean any surfaces they may have come into contact with, such as cutting boards or countertops.
To prevent food poisoning, always cook foods to at least the minimum internal temperature, which can vary by food item. You can use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your food.
Harmful germs can also be present on raw fruits and vegetables. Because of this, always rinse them thoroughly before eating. Avoid eating raw produce that can be difficult to wash well, such as:
- leafy greens like lettuce or spinach
- berries like raspberries and strawberries
- alfalfa or bean sprouts
6. Hard, acidic, or spicy foods
Chemotherapy can cause changes in your mouth and throat. When this happens, you can experience things like increased sensitivity and mouth sores.
During this time, it’s important to avoid foods that can further irritate these areas. This typically includes items that are hard, acidic, or spicy, such as:
- potato chips
- tortilla chips
- citrus fruits
- tomato sauce
- carbonated beverages
7. Frequent or heavy alcohol consumption
Having an occasional beer or glass of wine during chemotherapy is unlikely to have serious effects. However, because some chemotherapy drugs can interact with alcohol, always ask your doctor if it’s OK to have a drink now and then.
Frequent or heavy alcohol consumption during chemotherapy is generally a bad idea. One reason for this is that alcohol can worsen some chemotherapy side effects, such as dehydration, diarrhea, and mouth sores.
Additionally, alcohol and chemotherapy drugs are both processed by the liver. Drinking while on chemotherapy can place additional stress on your liver.
Smoking can affect your health in a variety of ways, such as lowering immunity, slowing wound healing, and increasing your risk for other health conditions. As such, smoking during chemotherapy can negatively impact your treatment.
One way that it can do this is by making side effects worse.
Smoking can also affect how chemotherapy drugs are processed by your body, potentially reducing the effectiveness of your treatment. For example, a 2014 study on lung cancer found that some chemotherapy drugs were cleared from the body faster in smokers than in nonsmokers.
If you smoke, it’s important to try to quit before starting chemotherapy. Work with your doctor to develop a quit plan that you can stick to.
9. Ultraviolet (UV) light
It’s possible that chemotherapy may cause your skin to become more sensitive to UV light, which is found in both natural sunlight and in tanning beds. In this case, exposure to UV light can lead to burning and skin reactions.
Follow the tips below to safely enjoy outdoor time during chemotherapy:
- When in doubt, wear sunscreen. If you think you’re going to be out in the sun for longer than 15 minutes or so, make sure that you have sunscreen on hand.
- Go with a high SPF. To maximize your protection, choose a sunscreen with a high SPF rating. Because it takes time to absorb, apply your sunscreen at least half an hour before going outside.
- Note the time of day. Aim to be outside earlier or later in the day, when the sun isn’t high in the sky.
- Consider your clothing. Wear loose-fitting clothing that covers most of your body. Don’t forget to protect your head and scalp by wearing a hat.
- Reapply sunscreen. If you’ve been sweating a lot or have been swimming, be sure to reapply your sunscreen.
- Seek shade. Use an umbrella or portable shade to help shield yourself from the sun.
Now that we’ve talked about some things to avoid during chemotherapy, let’s discuss some things that it’s important to do.
Staying active helps to keep your body strong while you’re undergoing chemotherapy. It may also help to lift your mood and improve your appetite.
Speak with your doctor about exercise routines that are appropriate for you during chemotherapy. Some general pointers include:
- Focus on low-intensity activities. If you worked out prior to starting chemotherapy, you may not be able to continue at the same intensity. Try to start out with low-intensity activities like yoga or walking.
- Take precautions. Make sure that you have sturdy, supportive footwear. Using a cushioned mat can also be helpful for comfort and in the event of a fall.
- Avoid gyms. Since chemotherapy can weaken your immune system, it’s a good idea to avoid crowded gyms during your treatment.
- Know when to stop. If you experience symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain during your workout, stop the workout and speak with your doctor about other ways to stay active.
Engage in a calming activity
It’s possible that you may experience many different feelings during chemotherapy, such as anxiety, sadness, or anger. Doing a calming activity may help you to cope with these feelings when they occur. Some examples include:
- taking part in a hobby that you enjoy
- visiting with family and friends
- curling up with a book
- listening to music
- taking a walk outside
- doing yoga
- trying out meditation or breathing exercises
Be proactive about nausea
Nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy. However, there are several steps that you can take to limit nausea, such as:
- taking any anti-nausea medications exactly as prescribed and not waiting until you feel nauseous
- selecting foods that are appetizing or appealing to you at the time
- limiting foods that may upset your stomach, such as fatty, spicy, or sugary foods
- focusing on blander food options, such as dry toast, bananas, and plain yogurt
- avoiding foods with very strong odors, such as garlic, onions, and coffee
Dehydration during chemotherapy is common. You can’t go wrong by trying to drink plenty of water and other fluids to stay hydrated. To promote hydration, you can:
- carry a water bottle with you
- dress up plain water by adding a squeeze of lemon or a slice of fresh cucumber
- include different types of liquids, such as sports drinks, soups or broths, caffeine-free tea, and fruit-flavored drinks
- add water-rich produce to your diet, such as watermelon, cucumbers, and apples
Hydration can also help with some chemotherapy side effects. For example, it can replace fluids that are lost through diarrhea or soften stools if you’re experiencing constipation.
Focus on calories and protein
When you’re on chemotherapy, it’s important to keep up your strength to help your body heal and to cope with any treatment side effects. Because of this, you’ll need to have extra calories and protein in your diet.
Some examples of foods that can help you to add both of these things to your diet include:
- meat and poultry
- fish and seafood
- milk, especially whole milk
- toasted nuts
- peanut butter
If you’re experiencing appetite loss, it may be helpful to try liquids or soft foods that provide calories. Some examples include:
- soups and broths
- smoothies and milkshakes
- fruit purees
- oatmeal or grits
- puddings or custards
- frozen yogurt or sherbet
- liquid meal replacement products like Ensure or Carnation Instant Breakfast
Diarrhea can sometimes occur as a side effect of chemotherapy. If this happens, it may be a good idea to focus on foods that have lower fiber content, such as plain yogurt, white rice, or crackers.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to experience constipation during chemotherapy. If this occurs, try to eat foods that are high in fiber. Some examples of high fiber foods include whole grain bread and pasta, nuts, and raw vegetables.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing chemotherapy can definitely take a physical, emotional, and mental toll. However, there are many resources available to help you get the support you need.
For example, it may be helpful to speak with and learn from others who are on a similar journey as you. You can do this through joining an in-person or online support group.
If you’re not quite ready to engage with a support group, one-on-one counseling may be a good option. Try to find a mental health professional who specializes in counseling people with cancer.
Some support resources to get started with include:
- Medical care team. If you have a medical care team, ask them for recommendations on support services. There may even be support groups or counselors that are associated with your treatment center.
- American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society provides resources like a 24/7 helpline, connections to cancer survivors, and assistance with transportation to medical appointments.
- National Cancer Institute. The National Cancer Institute has a searchable database of support services, including support groups and counseling.
- CancerCare. CancerCare aims to provide free support services, such as counseling and support groups, to people with cancer.
Chemotherapy can cause a variety of side effects, including loss of appetite, nausea, and dehydration — just to name a few.
To ensure that treatment is tolerable and safe, it’s important to take precautions during chemotherapy. Some examples of these steps are preventing contact with bodily fluids after treatment, avoiding infections, and not smoking.
While precautions are important, there are also some things that are important to do during chemotherapy. These include things like eating a nutritious diet, staying active, and using support services like counseling and support groups.