Before You Begin Cancer Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 22, 2018

There’s no preparing for a cancer diagnosis. But when it comes to treatment, you can get yourself ready for what’s ahead. Even taking small steps can improve your sense of well-being and control, experts say.

Here are some things to do before your chemotherapy or radiation treatment begins.

“One of the single most important things you can do is to make sure you and your cancer care team are on the same page about exactly what your treatment involves,” says Dale R. Shepard, MD, PhD, of the Cleveland Clinic. “That includes what will happen during treatment, how long treatment will take, what the potential side effects are, and what the ultimate goal of your treatment is.”

Have a spouse or a friend take notes while you talk with your doctor. Also, get a second opinion if you feel you need one. “If you have any uncertainties, getting another opinion can help you make sure you’re on board with what your doctor’s recommending,” Shepard says.

Don’t worry about offending your doctor or surgeon -- you’re taking an active role in your own care.

No matter what your treatment is, you won’t feel your best during recovery. So think about what you might need and plan ahead.

“A lot of frustration and anxiety before and during chemo or radiation isn’t actually about cancer, but about practical concerns: ‘How will I get back and forth to the hospital?’ or ‘Who will take care of my dog?’ ” says Wendy Griffith. She's a social worker at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

  • Have friends and family help you figure out what you need -- and what you don’t. (For example, maybe you don’t need lots of extra food in your fridge.)
  • Ask people to take on specific jobs, like picking up the kids, walking the dog, or keeping up the housework.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Griffith says. “People are almost always happy to chip in; they’re just waiting for you to tell them what you need.”

Once you get home, you might need to recover in a certain area, like your living room or bedroom. Think about what is where.

  • Can you get to water easily?
  • Are there outlets nearby for computer and phone chargers?
  • Are there drawers to keep medications?
  • Do you need new sheets or a mattress pad?
  • Do you like what you see? Decorate with things that make you feel good, like plants and pictures of your family.

Take note of your mental and physical health. In the days or weeks before your treatment, make sure to eat healthy and exercise if you can. Improve your mental health with meditation, yoga, or talking to a therapist. How you feel going into treatment can affect how you feel while it’s underway.

Try to stick with these good habits as much as you can. “Food and exercise can help you maintain your quality of life, which should be your goal no matter what type or stage of cancer you have,” says Stewart Fleishman, MD, author of Learn to Live Through Cancer.

Consider meeting with a nutritionist and a physical therapist, or a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, he says.

Chemo and radiation may cause hair loss, weight loss, or skin rashes as side effects. Prepare yourself for these possibilities. “You don’t want to be blindsided,” Griffith says.

Ask your doctor what you can expect. The American Cancer Society’s Look Good Feel Better program offers free resources like workshops and materials to help women with cancer during treatment. Call 800-395-LOOK.

If you need to ease uncertainty, anxiety, or fear, connect with other people who have cancer.

“I encourage people who’ve just been diagnosed to speak with other people who’ve had the same disease and had successful treatment,” says Alyson Moadel, PhD, of the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care. “Hearing from those who’ve already taken the journey you’re about to start can really offer hope and improve your perspective.”

You can connect with someone by asking your doctor or hospital’s social work department for a peer counselor or a support group referral. You can also call the American Cancer Society (800-227-2345) for a recommendation.

Show Sources


Crane-Okada, R. Oncology Nursing Forum, January 2012.

Goodwin, P. New England Journal of Medicine, December 2001.

American College of Sports Medicine: “Exercise During Cancer Treatment.”

Dale R. Shepard, MD, PhD, solid tumor oncologist, Cleveland Clinic.

Alyson Moadel, PhD, director of psychosocial oncology program, Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care.

Stewart Fleishman, MD, author, Learn to Live Through Cancer; investigator, National Cancer Institute Clinical Trials Cooperative Group Program.

Wendy Griffith, licensed clinical social worker, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

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