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How to prepare for chemotherapy

Knowledge is power

Chemotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that works by halting or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide rapidly. However, it can also damage healthy cells that divide quickly, such as the cells that line your mouth and intestines or cause your hair to grow. Because of this chemotherapy may result in hair loss and other side effects, which get better or go away once chemotherapy is over.

Depending on the type and stage of your cancer, chemotherapy may cure your cancer, control your cancer (prevent further spread) or alleviate symptoms caused by advanced cancer. Chemotherapy may be used alone, but more often, it will be administered along with surgery, radiation therapy, or immunotherapy.

Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy: is used before surgery or radiation therapy to make the tumour smaller.

  • Adjuvant chemotherapy: is used to destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy can also be used to treat recurrent cancer or metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread to other parts of your body)

Even though each patient’s chemotherapy treatment plan is different, you can expect to take these general steps.

  1. 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 your treatment as it depends on the type, size, staging and location of the cancer. Your doctor will also consider your age, your general health, and other factors, such as previous cancer treatments.
  2. Learn about your chemotherapy treatment schedule. Your oncology team will explain when and how often you need chemotherapy. Most chemotherapy treatments are given in repeating cycles ranging from 2 to 6 weeks, depending on the agent you receive. The number of treatment doses scheduled within each cycle also depends on the agent e.g. each cycle may contain only 1 dose on the first day or 1 dose given each week or one dose given each day. Most people have several cycles of chemotherapy, and your doctor will usually check if the treatment is working after you finish a couple cycles.
  3. Give consent for chemotherapy. Your doctor will discuss the possible risks and benefits of chemotherapy with you. This discussion will include potential short- and long-term side effects of the chemotherapy. This is a good opportunity for you to ask questions and share any concerns. Download and print out a checklist of questions you may want to ask your doctor about your chemotherapy treatments here. [link to the “Chemotherapy: Questions to ask your doctor.” pdf document]. Once you decide to move forward, your healthcare team will ask you to sign an informed consent form.
  4. Learn how food and medicine can affect chemotherapy. Your healthcare team will tell you if there are restrictions or suggestions about what to eat and drink on chemotherapy days to help your treatment work best. Always tell your chemotherapy team about any prescription and over-the-counter medicines you take, including any vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements. This is to avoid any drug interactions and other unwanted side effects. Your doctor will tell you if you should not take them during chemotherapy.
  5. Other things you can do. Prepare a caregiving plan with friends and family to cover things like meals, lifting children and housework. Arrange help at work by readjusting your work schedule and workload. Get help with finances if your medical aid is not covering all the costs. Learn about potential side effects and prepare for them. Seek out emotional support to help you through this difficult time.

To help you prepare for your first consultation with your specialist, we've developed some questions you may find helpful to ask. Download and print these: Questions to ask your specialist.

Chemotherapy may be given in several ways including via injection, intravenous drip (into a vein), oral medication that you swallow, or a cream that you rub on your skin. Chemotherapy can be administered in a hospital, clinic, outpatient unit or, doctor’s office. No matter where you go for chemotherapy, your doctor and nurse will watch for side effects and make any needed drug changes. Regular sessions of intravenous chemotherapy may require the surgical insertion of a semi-permanent catheter (into a vein) or port (under your skin) to facilitate administration of your chemotherapy treatment. Treatment sessions can last minutes or hours. Prepare ahead so that you have everything you will need during those hours. Download and print out a checklist of items you may want to take with you to your chemotherapy session here

About Life Oncology 

Life Oncology is a dedicated oncology and radiotherapy service under the Life Healthcare network. Our prime objective is to revolutionise the cancer treatment journey by embracing a patient-centric and value-based model, supporting our patients and their families throughout their treatment journeys. To support this journey, we ensure that our care is coordinated, integrated, and personalised.

Check the download section on the Life Oncology page here for more cancer educational information.

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.


  1. National Cancer Institute. Support for People with Cancer: Chemotherapy and You. NIH Publication No. 18-7157. [online] 2018 Sep [cited 2022 Jul 18]. Available from: URL:
  2. Net. What to Expect When Having Chemotherapy. [online] [cited 2022 Jun 27]. Available from: URL: