What to Expect When Having Chemotherapy

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2021

It is normal to feel worried or overwhelmed when you find out that you need chemotherapy. However, learning more about this type of cancer treatment may help you feel more prepared and less anxious. The information in this article can help you get ready for your first treatment.

Who is on my chemotherapy team?

A highly trained medical team will work together to give you the best possible care. Your team may include these health care professionals:

Medical oncologist. This type of doctor specializes in treating cancer with medication. Your medical oncologist works closely with other team members to create your overall cancer treatment plan. They also lead your chemotherapy treatments.

Advanced providers, like oncology nurse practitioners (NPs) and oncology physician assistants (PAs). These providers meet with patients and collaborate with a supervising medical oncologist. Their responsibilities can include:

  • Giving physical examinations

  • Ordering and interpreting laboratory and diagnostic test results

  • Prescribing and administering medications and other therapies, including chemotherapy

  • Providing education and counseling for patients and families

Oncology nurse. An oncology nurse specializes in cancer care. This includes giving chemotherapy. Oncology nurses can also:

  • Answer questions about treatment

  • Monitor your health during treatment

  • Help you manage side effects of treatment

Other health care professionals. Other team members may help care for your physical, emotional, and social needs during chemotherapy. These professionals include:

  • Pharmacists

  • Social workers

  • Registered dietitian nutritionists

  • Physical therapists

  • Dentists

Learn more about the oncology team.

What happens before chemotherapy?

Each chemotherapy treatment plan is created to meet a patient's unique needs. But before treatment starts, you can expect to take these general steps.

Meet with your oncologist. The doctor will look over your medical records and do a physical exam. You will also have tests done to help plan treatment. Your exact treatment depends on the type, size, and location of the cancer. Your doctor will also consider your age, your general health, and other factors, such as previous cancer treatments.

Learn about your chemotherapy treatment schedule. Your health care team will explain when and how often you need chemotherapy. Most chemotherapy treatments are given in repeating cycles. The length of a cycle depends on the drug(s) you receive. Most cycles range from 2 to 6 weeks. The number of treatment doses scheduled within each cycle also depends on the prescribed chemotherapy.

For example, each cycle may contain only 1 dose on the first day. Or, a cycle may contain more than 1 dose given each week or each day. Often, your doctor will check if the treatment is working after you finish 2 cycles. Most people have several cycles of chemotherapy. Sometimes, chemotherapy treatment is ongoing as a maintenance therapy.

Give permission for chemotherapy. Your doctor will talk with you about the possible risks and benefits of chemotherapy. This discussion will include potential short-term side effects and late effects of the chemotherapy. This is a great time for you to ask questions and share any concerns. Once you decide to move forward, your health care team will ask you to sign an informed consent form.

Signing this form means:

  • Your team gave you information on your treatment options.

  • You choose to have chemotherapy.

  • You give permission for health care professionals to deliver the treatment.

  • You understand that the treatment is not guaranteed to give the intended results.

  • You understand that there are possible risks, like side effects, that may happen due to the treatment.

Learn how food and medicine can affect chemotherapy. Your health care team will tell you if there are restrictions or suggestions about what to eat and drink on chemotherapy days. This will help your treatment work best. Always tell your chemotherapy team about any prescription and non-prescription medicines you take. Include vitamins and other supplements, such as herbs. This is to avoid drug interactions and other unwanted side effects. Your doctor will tell you if you should not take them during chemotherapy.

How should I plan for chemotherapy treatments?

There are steps you can take before treatment begins to help you cope.

Prepare for side effects. Your team will work with you to plan for side effects common to your specific treatment. These may include nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and other side effects. This can include recommendations about eating well and getting regular exercise.

Relieving physical and emotional side effects is an important part of your overall cancer treatment. This type of care is called palliative care or supportive care. Talk with your health care team about the side effects you experience and ways to manage and treat them. Learn more about the side effects of chemotherapy.

Make a caregiving plan. People receiving chemotherapy may need extra help during treatment with transportation, household chores, and other tasks. Family and friends can provide valuable support during this time, called caregiving. Ask your team what type of caregiving at home you may need during and after treatment.

Get help with finances. Cancer treatment can be costly. Before chemotherapy starts, talk with your team about the financial considerations of your treatment, including specific insurance coverage. You may want to contact organizations that can provide financial support. This could be important if your health insurance does not cover the whole cost of treatment.

Get help at work. As you learn about your treatment schedule and side effects, you may be concerned about how this could affect your work schedule. Talk with your employer about possible adjustments to your work schedule or other arrangements during treatment and your recovery.

What happens during chemotherapy treatment?

There are different ways you can receive chemotherapy. The most common way that chemotherapy drugs are given is through a needle into a vein. This is called intravenous or IV chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can also be taken as a pill, capsule, or liquid by mouth, as an injection or shot, or as a cream that is put directly on your skin. Learn more about the different kinds of chemotherapy.

During your first IV chemotherapy appointment, you should bring a friend or family member. They can support you and help you remember information. Sometimes you will be given medication before your chemotherapy treatment that can make you tired, so you may need someone who can drive you home.

You may also bring items that make your treatment time easier. For instance, considering bringing your phone, a tablet, books, or a blanket.

Before your treatment starts, you will:

  • Have a blood sample taken

  • Meet with your oncologist so they can check your health and blood test results

  • Meet the nurse or other health professionals who will give your treatment

  • Have your blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and temperature taken before starting treatment

  • Have your height and weight measured to find the right dose of chemotherapy

  • May have an IV tube, also called a catheter, put in your arm

Some people receive chemotherapy through a port. Instead of putting the IV directly into your arm, the catheter will go into a round metal or plastic disk. With a port, your nurse does not need to find a vein to put the IV in for each treatment. If you need a port, you will need a minor surgery before your first chemotherapy appointment to put the port in. Learn more about catheters and ports.

The length of your treatment session will depend on many factors. Some chemotherapy treatments take minutes or hours. Others are given over several days or weeks. This is called continuous infusion chemotherapy. You do not need to stay at the hospital or clinic for continuous infusion. Instead, drugs are delivered through a small pump you wear or carry.

To get the full benefit of chemotherapy, it is important to follow the schedule of treatments recommended by your doctor and manage other medications you're taking.

What happens after IV chemotherapy ends?

After your treatment session ends, the nurse or another health care team member will take out your IV. If you have a port, it will stay in until you finish all of your treatments. The nurse will check your blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and temperature again.

Your oncologist or nurse will talk with you about what to expect with side effects. They will give you medication, tell you how to manage common side effects, and offer information such as:

  • Avoid people with colds or other infections. Chemotherapy weakens your body's immune system. Your immune system helps fight infections.

  • Drink lots of fluids for 48 hours after chemotherapy. This helps move the drugs through your body.

  • Whether there are activities to do or avoid doing on future treatment days.

Before you leave your first treatment, be sure to ask who you should call with any questions or concerns and how to contact them, including after hours or weekends.

Questions to ask the health care team

  • Who is creating my chemotherapy treatment plan? How often will the plan be reviewed?

  • Which health care professionals will I see at every treatment session?

  • How will I receive chemotherapy treatments? Will I need a port?

  • Will I need any tests or scans before this treatment begins?

  • Can you describe what my first treatment will be like?

  • How long will each treatment session take?

  • Will I need someone to drive me home after each session?

  • How often will I have chemotherapy? For how long?

  • What are the common side effects of the chemotherapy I will receive?

  • Who should I talk with about any side effects I experience?

  • Should I track the side effects I experience at home?

  • Are there side effects I should let you know about right away?

  • Who can I talk with if I'm feeling anxious about having this treatment?

  • What type of caregiving could I need at home?

  • How will we know if the chemotherapy is working?

  • What follow-up care will I need after chemotherapy?

Related Resources

Making Decisions About Cancer Treatment

Prehabilitation Helps Patients Prepare for Cancer Treatment

When to Call the Doctor During Cancer Treatment

Physical, Emotional, and Social Effects of Cancer

More Information

Chemocare.com: Preparing for Chemo Treatments

National Cancer Institute: Chemotherapy to Treat Cancer

ASCO answers; Understanding Chemotherapy

Download ASCO's free 1-page fact sheets on Understanding Chemotherapy and Oral Chemotherapy. These printable PDFs provide an introduction to chemotherapy, answers to common questions, terms to know, and questions to ask the doctor.