Your First Chemotherapy Treatment: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Chemotherapy patient

If chemotherapy is part of your cancer treatment plan, you’re probably (understandably) nervous. Nearly everyone knows chemo can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss and other unpleasant side effects. But your doctors and treatment team will guide you through the process and help you manage these symptoms. Learning more about chemotherapy drugs, how they’re administered, and chemo side effects may help put your mind at ease as you prepare for your first infusion. 

Types of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can be administered via pills, capsules or medicated liquid. It can also be infused into the bloodstream via an IV or injected directly into the body.

You and your doctor will discuss which chemotherapy drugs and administration process is most likely to successfully attack your cancer. The most common form of chemotherapy is intravenous, or chemotherapy that’s administered via an IV over a period of hours.

Because chemotherapy can be hard on the veins, some patients have special access catheters or ports installed before treatment. Some have a thin catheter implanted in their chest or forearm. Others have a port implanted under the skin of the chest; this port connects directly to a large vein and can be easily accessed with a needle. When needed, healthcare providers can draw blood samples from ports and implanted catheters. Catheters and ports typically stay in place throughout the entire course of chemotherapy treatment.

Before Starting Chemotherapy

If possible, ask your healthcare provider for a tour of your infusion center. Some cancer treatment centers have private rooms for chemotherapy; at others, patients are in a common area. Seeing the space in advance will help you prepare mentally—and decide what to bring along during chemo sessions. Most centers offer TV, WiFi, blankets and snacks, but you may want to bring along some personal comfort items and something to keep you busy during your infusion.

Ask your doctor to describe the chemotherapy side effects you may experience, as well as what healthcare providers do to manage those side effects. For instance, it’s now common for patients to receive anti-nausea medication before undergoing chemo. 

Don’t apply perfume or cologne on treatment days. Chemotherapy can alter the sense of smell, and you don’t want to unwittingly cause extra discomfort for anyone (including yourself).

During Your First Chemotherapy Infusion

Plan to spend the day at the hospital or treatment center. When you arrive, a healthcare provider will check your vital signs, height and weight. You’ll probably have blood drawn as well. This information helps the healthcare team provide the proper dose of chemotherapy drugs.

Expect to wait after your initial tests and blood draw. Chemotherapy medication cannot be prepared in advance; it must be mixed to exact specifications and that takes time.

When the healthcare team is ready, you’ll be settled in an infusion area. (Most places have comfortable recliners available for patients, so you can sit up or lie down as desired.) A nurse will access your catheter or port or insert an IV and may administer some IV fluids and medication. (Some of these meds may make you feel sleepy or energized.) If you have any questions about what’s happening, ask. Staff members want you to feel comfortable and informed.

Your chemotherapy drugs will be administered through your IV, port or catheter. You might not feel anything unusual at all, or you may experience a flushed feeling or metallic taste in your mouth. Depending on your specific treatment protocol, additional medications that prevent or lessen nausea and vomiting may also be administered. Report any symptoms to your nurse. She or he will be watching you closely anyway, especially during your first treatment. In fact, expect to stay awhile after your infusion is complete. Staff won’t let you go home until they’re sure you’re feeling OK.

After Chemotherapy 

You’ll probably feel fine when you leave the infusion center. Still, you should plan for someone else to drive you home. Side effects don’t typically hit until 4 to 6 hours later—and in some cases, not until a day or two later.

A member of your healthcare team will probably call you the next day. Report your side effects. Your healthcare provider can help you figure out how to manage any uncomfortable symptoms.

While it will never feel routine to receive chemotherapy, in time, the process will become less scary and more familiar. Always feel free to ask your nurse or doctors questions about your treatment and discuss any new or worsening side effects. Your providers want you to have the highest quality of life possible as you work together to find an effective treatment for your cancer.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jul 10
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Preparing for Your First Day of Chemotherapy. Penn Medicine.
  3. Chemotherapy by Infusion. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
  4. What to Expect on Your First Day of Chemotherapy. MD Anderson Cancer Center.
  5. Coping with Chemotherapy. UCSF Health.