Cancer. When that word is uttered in a doctor’s office, it brings a flood of emotions to process and lifestyle changes to be made—for both patients and caregivers.
Chemotherapy is often recommended for certain types of cancer, but chemotherapy can also come with intense side effects, especially for older adults. Supporting someone going through chemotherapy requires not only dealing with their physical limitations caused by the treatment but caring for their mental well-being as well.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy includes a number of different drugs, all of which are designed to attack fast-growing cells in your body. Because cancer cells typically multiply much more quickly than normal, healthy cells, chemo is used to treat a variety of cancer types.
Chemotherapy may be used by itself or combined with other therapies such as radiation and surgery to maximize the chances of killing or removing all the cancer cells.
While chemotherapy can be effective against many cancer types, most chemo drugs also carry some level of toxicity that allows them to kill the cancer cells, and that toxicity can cause a variety of side effects.
What are the side effects of chemotherapy?
Like any drug, chemotherapy drugs can affect each person differently. Some may experience no side effects while others encounter severe issues, yet research shows seniors are more susceptible to side effects from chemotherapy drugs. While the reasons for this are unproven, many researchers believe the higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions like obesity and diabetes – and the fact our immune systems aren’t as robust as we get older – contribute to the likelihood that seniors will experience more severe side effects from chemotherapy.
The drugs used in chemotherapy treatments differ (and each comes with its own set of known side effects), so be sure to check with your loved one’s doctor about which side effects you should be looking for. As the caregiver, there are things you can do to help them deal with the most common side effects of the treatment, as listed by the American Cancer Society:
One of the best ways to manage chemo-related fatigue is to understand what activities or times of day make the fatigue worse. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute suggests keeping an activity log to help your loved one better plan their days during their treatment period.
Healthy meals and regular exercise are also good methods for fighting fatigue. Be sure to check with your loved one’s doctor about what types of exercise are allowed. Even walking around the block can help eliminate fatigue and boost spirits.
Of course, getting a good night’s sleep is the most important tool for keeping tiredness at bay. If your loved one is having a hard time sleeping at night, check in with their doctor for recommendations, and be sure to keep naps during the day to 15-20 minutes to avoid wakefulness at night.
Low blood counts
Low blood counts can lead to serious problems if not caught and treated. A deficit of red blood cells can contribute to fatigue while a low white blood cell count can make your loved one more susceptible to infection.
A low platelet count can be dangerous as well, so keep an eye out for unexplained bleeding, blood in their urine or stools, unexplained bruising or bad headaches and blurred vision.
Nausea and vomiting
Eating small snacks during the day and staying hydrated can help calm nausea. If the nausea and vomiting are severe, your loved one’s doctor may prescribe a drug known as an antiemetic to help.
Some chemotherapy drugs will cause hair loss, which can not just affect the physical look of your loved one but can also make them self-conscious and feel unattractive. You can make the transition easier by talking with their doctor about when the hair loss might occur and helping your loved one to own the hair loss by shaving their head or helping them purchase a wig or some cute hats and scarves.
Mouth dryness and sores
If chemo treatments are causing mouth dryness and sores, check with your loved one’s doctor to see if they have any suggestions that would help. Also, prepare soft foods that don’t scrape against the sides of the mouth when they’re eaten. Keep a drink at hand so your loved one can keep their mouth moist.
Facing cancer is a difficult experience, and chemotherapy treatment can cause significant mood changes. Worry and fatigue can cause your loved one to react in ways that might not be normal for them. If your loved one is struggling to process their cancer diagnosis and treatment, consider an in-person or online support group with other cancer patients.
How do you maintain social interactions during chemo?
A cancer diagnosis changes so many aspects of a senior’s daily routine, but keeping life as normal as possible for your loved one can help them navigate through the chemo treatments. Social support and feeling connected are an important part of healing, and studies show cancer patients without a strong social network are more likely to experience depression, which can inhibit their chances of recovery.
As the caregiver for a loved one during chemotherapy, you can help facilitate safe social interactions. Chemotherapy can lower a person’s resistance to other illnesses, so it’s important to keep your loved one safe while making sure they maintain their existing relationships.
For in-person interactions, insist that visitors wash their hands and wear a mask if necessary. Request that friends and family delay their visit if they have any symptoms of illness. Instead, use video calling to facilitate interactions with friends and family who can’t visit.
How do I practice self-care?
Being the caregiver for a loved one going through chemotherapy is a tough job, one that can take a mental and physical toll. It’s important you take steps to keep yourself healthy so you can be there for your loved one.
Chemotherapy treatment is toxic and that toxicity can remain in the body for a period of time, which means caregivers need to be careful when dealing with bodily fluids. Be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands frequently when cleaning things up.
If your loved one is taking pills for their chemotherapy treatment, check with their doctor about the best way to handle the pills.
While your loved one’s mental health needs to be looked after in this difficult season, don’t neglect your own. Many caregivers report feeling depressed while caring for a family member undergoing cancer treatment. Don’t hesitate to take a break or seek out a mental health professional or support group if you need help dealing with your situation.
The most important piece of caring for someone going through chemo treatment is to keep yourself healthy enough to offer the support they need.