14 Tips for Living With a Loved One on Chemo

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Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

If you are living with a friend or loved one who is on chemo, you two may be in for a wild ride. Circumstances tend to dictate how serious the situation is and how long the treatment can last.

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Anyone who has gone through chemo can tell you that you may have a wide range of emotions and physical responses. You are both coping with the stress of a cancer diagnosis and prognosis.

Living with and supporting someone on chemo is a combination of practical and emotional support. Chemotherapy might be one part of a multifaceted approach to treatment for cancer, but it is not the only one. For both you and your loved one, chemotherapy may not be the end, but just the beginning. 

How to Prepare to Live With a Loved One on Chemo

Preparing to live with a loved one on chemo will make a significant difference in their comfort and healing.  Preparation will also help maintain the integrity of your relationship. The last thing you want is more stress and strain related to a chaotic and unhealthy environment. Developing a plan will help you have the energy and focus on being an excellent caregiver.

1. Create a safe environment

Have all of the supplies on hand that you need to prevent infection and exposure to chemotherapy drugs. Supplies include gloves, masks, and non-toxic cleaning products. You should clean all surfaces at least once a day. Designate a safe and secure place to store any drugs, needles, and equipment away from children.

2. Educate yourself

Educate yourself about the side effects of chemo so you won’t be surprised. You may have depended upon your loved one for specific responsibilities and tasks, and they may not be able to perform those while going through treatment.

Acquaint yourself with information about chemo, especially the emotional and mental health consequences of this treatment. Your loved one could become depressed, anxious, and irritable. 

3. Prepare the food pantry

It might be hard to predict what your loved one will want to eat while going through chemo due to nausea and an upset stomach.

But having healthy foods ready to offer can help with healing. Foods you consider should have high-quality proteins, carbohydrates, and antioxidants. Have a blender on hand to prepare high-calorie shakes that might be more appealing. 

4. Think of pleasurable activities

Going to battle each day with cancer is exhausting. Engaging in pleasurable activities is a good way for your loved one to relax and not think about cancer and treatment. Try and think of activities that don’t require a lot of energy or focus. 

5. Create a healing environment

A healing environment means different things to different people. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the details of the chemo and cancer itself without thinking about the space where your loved one lives and sleeps.

Consider creating a clean and calm area. Your loved one might need to nap during the day, and having light-blocking shades can help. Ask your loved one what would make their environment calm and healing. 

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6. Prepare the rest of the family

You may live with children or other family members who need your attention and care. It is unfair to expect that they understand what living with someone on chemo is like unless you tell them.

Get everyone together to talk about your preparations and how everyone can help support you and your loved one. Pay close attention to infection control and safety issues and the importance of keeping the home environment clean. If necessary, post the protocols that include cleaning, gloves, and mask-wearing. Talk about keeping other visitors at a minimum. 

7. Create your self-care plan

We talk about the importance of self-care in the next section, and having a plan in place before you need it is a good idea.

The reason for creating a plan before your loved one starts chemo is because it can be hard to remember what you need to do for yourself. One suggestion is to plan activities on your phone calendar. Another idea is to write down in a journal the things that help you stay healthy and calm.

How to Live With a Loved One on Chemo

There is no other way to put it; you will need to step up. It is a big responsibility to care for someone going through chemo. The nature of your relationship with the person on chemo may change as you become more of a caregiver. Your loved one may be a spouse, partner, sibling, parent, or even friend. Regardless of who the person is in your life, your offer of support and comfort will make a significant difference in their experience. 

8. Advocate

As a person who lives with someone who is having chemo, it may also fall upon you to help advocate for your loved one.

Some of the responsibilities as an advocate for your loved one can include the following:

  • If you haven’t already, make sure advance directives are in place so you can access medical records and speak freely with health providers. Having this authority will permit you to step in if necessary to make treatment decisions. 
  • Attend all appointments if at all possible. A person undergoing chemo needs support and someone who can listen and take notes.
  • Ask any question you can think of, even ones you might think are unimportant. As an advocate, you can ask questions such as “is there an alternative to the nausea medication you have prescribed? It isn’t working well enough.”
  • If the person you are living with is having specific side effects related to chemo, let the doctor know. There might be an intervention that will help.

9. Use universal precautions

The purpose of practicing universal precautions is twofold: universal precautions protect people from further harm or infection, while simultaneously protecting the caregiver from contracting a bloodborne illness from an infected individual. 

Someone going through chemo may have nausea and vomiting, a high risk of infection, and problems with bowel and bladder control. Cleaning after someone means taking extreme safety precautions when handling bodily fluids. Use gloves, a mask, and dispose of soiled materials safely.

If you are sick, you will want to be very careful so as not to infect the person you are living with. The treatment team will have suggestions on good hygiene while caring for someone.

10. Attend to nutrition and hydration needs

For someone going through chemo, loss of appetite is common. While caregiving for a loved one on a round of chemotherapy, you can do a few things to help them out in regards to their nutrition and hydration needs.

  • Offer small meals throughout the day to combat nausea and increase calorie intake.
  • Ask your loved one what seems appealing to eat. They may like something completely different than you expect. 
  • Focus on protein and high-calorie foods.
  • Ask your friends to prepare a meal or two during the week to give you a break. Or, order pre-made meals for delivery. 
  • Don’t forget about hydration. This is especially important for someone who has nausea and vomiting.

11. Encourage rest

Depending on your situation, the person you are living with may still be working while they are on chemo. For many, this is important because it provides structure and a sense of purpose. It can be easy for your loved one to overdo it. Remind them how important rest is during cancer treatment and create an environment that is conducive to rest.

Help them by creating a quiet space for them to rest, away from any noise or other distractions. You can also help by taking on any extra household duties they originally did. If you are unable to manage everything, try to minimize some tasks by ordering groceries, hiring a cleaning company, and someone to mow your lawn.

In addition, remind your loved one about the importance of rest, even if they say they are fine. If they do not seem fine, make sure to raise this issue with the doctor. The doctor could work with your loved one to assess any other conditions such as anemia or depression that may be exacerbating their fatigue. Also, consider working out with them or reminding them to exercise as a way to help them increase energy during the day and helping them sleep at night.

12. Focus on personal appearance

You may ask why this is important when there are so many other things to attend to. But, if you think about it, chemo can cause hair loss, fatigue, poor appetite, and depression. Your loved one may struggle to take care of personal hygiene and quite frankly, may not care.

The reality is, we feel better when we look good. Take some time to help by offering or just jumping in to do some of these things:

  • Plan for hair loss by buying a wig, or suggesting a hat or scarf to help them cover up if they want. However, shaving their head might be the best option. 
  • Assist with bathing if necessary or even do bed baths.
  • Help them with shaving, if that is a part of their daily or weekly routine.
  • Help someone dress for the day in clean clothes. People may want to visit and looking “put together” can lift someone’s mood.
  • Offer to help with oral care.

13. Emotional support

Supporting a loved one with cancer can be complicated. You might get lost in the caregiving tasks of the day and lose sight of the emotional support your loved one needs. Strong emotions such as anger, frustration, helplessness, and hopelessness are not uncommon for your loved one to experience. Knowing what to do or what to say can be confusing and overwhelming.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Listen to your loved one and support them unconditionally. Strong emotions can elicit a compulsion to do something. Sometimes all that is needed is compassion and empathy.
  • Feelings of depression and anxiety can be treated with medication and/or therapy. Perhaps an online support group or a cancer blog may help them feel they are not alone in this fight.
  • Create a sense of normality by adhering to household routines that are familiar and comforting. 

14. Take care of yourself

Self-care as a caregiver can often take a back seat when you live with someone who is on chemo. Taking care of yourself should also be a priority, as you help support your loved one.

Here are some suggestions when thinking about self-care:

  • Ask for help if you need it. Other friends or family members can help with shopping or running errands.
  • Take some quiet time for yourself and get plenty of rest.
  • Consider caregiver blogs, and forums to give you support and care suggestions. 
  • Tackle the basics like good nutrition, exercise, relaxation techniques, and hobbies to keep you centered and focused. 
  • Manage your own emotions by seeking help if you need it. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor or therapist to discuss feelings of grief, anger, or frustration. 

Living With Someone On Chemo 

Living with someone on chemo requires flexibility, support, compassion, and a willingness to learn along the way. By being there for your loved one in the best way possible, you are able to provide for them while taking care of yourself as well. It goes both ways.


Sources

  1. Simon, Stacy. “FAQ: Caregiving During Chemotherapy.” American Cancer Society. 13 November 2019, cancer.org
  2. “Tips for Diet Problems.” Cancer Research UK, cancerresearchuk.org
  3. “Urinary and Bladder Problems.” National Cancer Institute, cancer.gov
  4. “Cancer Fatigue: Why it Occurs and How to Cope.” The Mayo Clinic, mayoclinic.org

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