By Emma Chow and Rachel Rule
Many of us will know someone who has endured chemo therapy to battle cancer. Perhaps you yourself have experienced chemo therapy. As a young child I watched my grandfather, father, uncle and grandmother battle cancer. Unfortunately their cancers were aggressive and they all sadly passed away while fighting the disease.
Chemo therapy aims to kill cancer cells but also unfortunately normal cells are damaged in the process and there are several side effects that commonly arise during therapy. Today I witness a dear friend endure several rounds of chemo therapy. There she is up there, sitting in her treatment chair with a smile. Rachel Rule is one of the toughest and most resilient women I know; she has fought cancer with strength and determination, ever wise cracking despite the fear and pain, and always the epitome of grace and poise. I’m ever in awe of Rachel and the way she takes life with both hands. She also writes her own blog, The British Rule, where she talks about motherhood, cancer treatment and her wonderful style choices. With her generous input, as well as some advice from some nurses who treat cancer patients and other friends and who have assisted a loved one undergoing chemo therapy, together we’ve come up with a list of things that you could include in a chemo care kit for a friend, loved one or for yourself. To ensure we cover all the bases, I also referred to the Cancer Council Australia website.
Note: This post is intended as a guide only for providing help and comfort; not medical advice. If you require specific medical advice then consider contacting your medical practitioner.
Chemo: The side Effects
It is important to note that there is a spectrum of physical side-affects that result from chemo therapy, which can occur both during and after therapy occurs. Nausea is one of the most commonly expressed problems, and can be anything from a constant but mild discomfort to uncontrollable vomiting and the inability to eat. Irritated, dry skin and dry mouth are also common side-effects of chemo therapy, and in the mouth sores or ulcers can also form. Diarrhoea or constipation often follow chemo, especially if anti-nausea medication is employed. There is general muscle weakness and extreme fatigue as well as an increased risk of illness, infection and bruising.
If you are intending on visiting someone having chemo therapy but you or someone in your household is ill with a cough, cold, flu, gastroenteritis or other type of infectious illness or virus, reschedule your visit until you are well.
It is not worth the risk of passing on the illness to a chemo patient as their experience of the illness will be far worse and more painful than your own.
Some people experience some cognitive impairment or some memory issues post chemotherapy. This can be experienced as having trouble remembering small day to day things, a longer time needed for processing new information or problems concentrating.
The Care Package: Some Ideas
In preparing a care package for chemo patients, we are aiming to provide some relief or assist in dealing with side-affects. Here are some things to include:
- Magazines or books of short stories are preferable to whole novels or larger tomes, as they will be easier to enjoy if cognitive impairment is being experienced. You could buy the patient a subscription to a magazine they already enjoy or something new you think they’ll like.
- Audio books are recommended by Rachel:
“I found the treatment made me drowsy so reading a book was hard. But everyone is different.” CD versions can still be obtained, but audio books are now also easily downloaded and can be put on smart phones and tablets. You could also purchase vouchers for purchasing music and audio books online, such as Apple Store Vouchers or others that can be obtained at post offices and music stores.
- Personally prepared playlists uploaded onto media devices could also provide chemo patients with personalised entertainment that shows a lot of love and care.
- Memory exercise puzzles and games can assist some patients with overcoming symptoms of cognitive impairment
- An iPad and a card for the internet are great things for a chemo patient to enjoy during treatment. If the patient doesn’t have one, consider lending them one.
- Headphones can allow the patient to create a sense of privacy in a ward full of other people. Rachel says:
“Sound blocking headphones – essential, especially if one of those accordion players arrives to “cheer” everyone up. Hope and pray you don’t get some happy-clapper singers belting out “When the Saints come marching in” There were times when I was cursing the fact the ward was on the ground floor, otherwise I might have thrown myself from a window.No one will be offended if you put your headphones on and talk to no one. Someone people want to chat, some don’t. If someone keeps bothering you, pretend to be asleep. Its one of the few times you can get away with this, unlike other places such as your work”.
- Hydration is an essential issue in chemotherapy so think about lovely teas or drinks. Rachel recommends Twining’s Lemon & Ginger tea; the light and refreshing flavour is easy to drink and the tart lemon and ginger also combat nausea. Consider putting several boxes of tea in a care package. Mint tea is also apparently a good one to help with nausea and constipation. You’ll find more about food and drink to provide chemo patients to assist with wellness and recovery in the following 2 parts to Mamabake’s Chemotherapy Care Kit in the following weeks.
- A comfortable robe or cosy cardigan can provide physical comfort during chemo. Things that open at the front are particularly useful, as many chemo patients will have a chest ‘port’ where the treatment enters their body. Soft cotton shirts, cardigans and robes are ideal.Rachel says:
“I spent all my money on nice pi’s and nighties, but the one thing you really need is a good dressing gown. Personally, I didn’t want a big fat towelling one as they made me feel like a frumpy old lady, so I bought a long knitted one trimmed with lace in pink which I loved. Some retailers sell things like cashmere hoodies or knitted ponchos, which would be a really appreciated present for someone taking on chemo.
- For those who must wear a chemo bottle on leaving hospital, a bodysuit can be a clever way to carry and conceal the bottle. Rachel says:
“If you have to leave the hospital still wearing chemo in a bottle, buy a body suit. Often hospitals issue you with these horrible “bum bags” which frankly, chemo or no chemo, I haven’t let standards drop that far and I wouldn’t be seen dead with it. So I bought a couple of body suits and then just put the bottle inside wore a baggy top. Then you don’t have anything hanging off of you.
Further advice from Rachel about dressing for chemo: “Apologise to no one for not getting dressed for days. They can bloody well sod off”
- Soft gloves and socks in light, but warm, natural fabrics can help the person cope with sensitivity to heat and cold. As Rachel says:
“Depending on your type of chemo, you will be sensitive to hot or cold. Chemo kills everything, including your nerve endings which make you temperature sensitive on your hands and feet and in your mouth. Super soft or chunky bed socks are nice, if you have the cash then buy some in really super soft yarn, like cashmere. Same applies to gloves, but you’re mostly at home and so if you had to invest in one, I’d pick the socks. Buy gloves if its winter time, otherwise it shouldn’t bother you too much.”
- A soft eye mask – the sort you use for blocking out light when sleeping – could be useful as hospital lighting can be harsh and the gentle provision of darkness can assist the person undertaking therapy to calm and relax themselves
- With increased physical sensitivity and vulnerability to physical injuries, soft toothbrushes are preferable to hard bristles, so these can be useful to include.
- Mouthwash that specifically combats dry mouth is preferable to the commercial alcohol varieties which will make the problem worse. 1 teaspoon of bicarb powder in a glass of warm water is a better solution, so though it might look strange, add a box of bicarb to the package. This both helps clean the mouth but the sodium content will help heal mouth ulcers and sores
- Lemon flavoured lollies (not the sour or fizzy kind), can help get rid of the bloody/metallic taste which can occur with dry mouth and ulcers
- Sick bags, neatly packaged but quickly accessible, are a great thing to add to a chemo patient’s bag
- Sorbolene based creams are ideal for both replacing soap and also using after bathing to moisturise skin
For those experiencing hair loss:
- Consider providing some beautiful head scarfs, hand knitted beanies or other sorts of hats you think they might like. The earlier things like this are provided, the longer time the patient has to select the look they would most prefer and become comfortable and confident wearing it
- Pillow cases: As nylon fabric can irritate a newly bare and sensitive scalp, fresh cotton, polyester or satin pillowcases are preferable
- An SPF 30+ Sunscreen can be essential because hair loss means unprotected scalp and skin
- Sunglasses help protect eyes from dust as eyebrows and eyelashes will also be affected in hair loss.
Beyond the care package
As fatigue and physical discomfort are major side effects of chemotherapy, you can extend your assistance beyond the care package and visits, by providing help with household cleaning, errands, food shopping, dog walking, child care, driving the patient to and from places or dropping off and picking children up from school.
Rachel: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People start off by telling you to call them if you need anything, but you need to be proactive in getting it. I used to find it hard asking, but I found people do want to help and they’re grateful you came to them. If they’re not, then say bollocks to them and call someone else. “
“The last and most important thing you need to get you through chemo…is love. Let the people in your life help you, no one can do this alone. Take something in with you which reminds you of someone you hold dear, why you’re doing this horrible thing, and know that everything is going to be alright.”
If you have any further suggestions for things you think should be included in a chemo care kit, please add them in the comments below.
If you would like to learn more about Rachel Rule and read more of her wonderfully honest and brilliant writing, you can find her blog here:
Thanks also to Sophie Moon for her warm provision of advice as she cares for her mother who is currently undergoing chemotherapy.
Blessings to you and your family.
Up soon: MamaBake’s Chemotherapy Care Kit Parts 2 & 3 on foods for during chemo and also food for recovery once treatment has ended.