If you’re receiving chemotherapy as a part of your cancer treatment, you’ve probably already learned a few tricks to make the experience easier.
Whether it’s carrying hard candies in your pocket to counteract nausea or bringing warm socks to stay comfortable during an infusion, most people learn these simple hacks by talking to their care teams or watching other patients.
But is there anything you should not be doing while undergoing chemotherapy? And is there anything you should be actively trying to avoid? We asked general oncologist Amy Hassan, M.D. Here’s what she wants patients in active cancer treatment to know.
1. Don’t eat raw meat or seafood
Eating uncooked animal matter at any time can increase your risk of contracting salmonella, E. coli and other food-borne illnesses. The risk of infection is even greater when you’re undergoing cancer treatment, because the medicines used to treat it can suppress the immune system.
Fortunately, heat kills many of the food-borne pathogens that can make us sick. That’s why it’s best to pass on raw and uncooked foods like sushi, oysters, or rare steaks, until you’ve finished cancer treatment.
For many patients, eating uncooked vegetables and fruits is allowed, as long as they are washed. But if you're undergoing more intensive chemotherapy, such as for leukemia or lymphoma, you may also be instructed to avoid raw produce. If you have any questions, discuss it with your care team.
“In addition, if a dish is meant to be served hot, it should be eaten while hot, not after it's been sitting at room temperature for a while,” says Hassan. “There really aren’t too many restrictions beyond that.”
2. Avoid foods that may aggravate cancer treatment side effects
Hard, spicy and acidic foods can aggravate the mouth sores that are sometimes a side effect of chemotherapy. So, you may want to skip these types of foods during treatment.
“Grapefruit in particular reacts with a lot of different things, including some medications,” Hassan says. “So, it’s always a good idea to avoid that. But eating an orange or drinking a glass of lemonade is not going to harm you. You just may want to pass on citrus fruits for a while, if your mouth is especially sensitive or sore.”
You may also want to avoid cold drinks and frozen treats like smoothies and sorbet with certain types of chemotherapy, as they can cause discomfort if you have chemo-related cold sensitivity.
3. Don’t start taking any new medications or supplements
It’s fine to take a nutritional supplement if your doctor prescribes it. Sometimes cancer patients need these to correct a vitamin deficiency or help them digest their food properly. But don’t start taking anything new without talking to your care team first.
“Supplements may seem harmless,” Hassan says. “But CBD oil, herbal supplements and even melatonin could potentially interact with other medications, including those used to treat cancer. This could make them less effective or even dangerous. So, it’s really important to discuss anything you might be considering taking with us before you start.”
4. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol
Avoiding alcohol is one of the simplest things you can do at any time to lower your cancer risk. The less you drink it, the better off you are. This is especially true during cancer treatment.
“We actively discourage the intake of alcohol during chemo because it is processed by the liver,” says Hassan. “So are many chemo medications. That combination can cause additional strain on the organ, which is something we’d rather avoid. Alcohol also causes dehydration, which can make nausea worse and chemo harder to tolerate.”
If you must indulge, she says, try not to drink alcoholic beverages either during or right before or after a chemo infusion.
“It really should be a rare occurrence,” Hassan explains, “something that’s saved for a very special occasion.”
Smoking, vaping and other tobacco products are also hard on the body, so it’s best to avoid them entirely. MD Anderson patients who need help quitting can find it here for free.
5. Avoid excessive UV exposure
It’s wise to wear protective clothing and SPF 30 sunscreen when outside during the day, and to avoid peak exposure times, when the sun’s rays are at their strongest. This is particularly true for some cancer patients.
“Many chemotherapy agents increase susceptibility to sunburns,” explains Hassan. “So, limit the amount of time you spend outdoors during daylight hours.”
6. Don’t risk pregnancy or chemotherapy exposure with sexual partners
Chemotherapy can damage both sperm and human egg cells, so it’s important to use effective birth control while in cancer treatment to avoid conception. It’s also prudent to use a form of barrier protection, such as condoms, to prevent sexual partners from being exposed to chemotherapy drugs.
“Most chemotherapy agents clear the system within 48 hours,” Hassan says. “But they may still be present in small amounts in various body secretions within that timeframe.”
7. Caregivers should take precautions when doing laundry and cleaning
Depending on your living situation, you may need to change your household cleaning habits during cancer treatment, too.
“If someone else is doing your laundry, and you’re receiving chemotherapy, they should put on gloves before touching your soiled clothes or linens,” Hassan says. “The same goes for chemotherapy at home. If a caregiver is handling your pills, they should be using gloves. Otherwise, they run the risk of absorbing the medications themselves.”
8. Don’t socialize with sick people
When you’re undergoing chemotherapy, your immune system may not work as well as it normally does. That can make you more vulnerable to infection. So, it’s a good idea to wear a mask, especially when circulating levels of respiratory viruses like RSV, flu and COVID-19 are higher.
“And if someone is clearly ill, stay away from that person until they’re totally symptom-free,” notes Hassan. “Washing your hands thoroughly and frequently is very effective at decreasing infections, too, so keep doing that as well.”
9. Avoid trying to do too much
One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is fatigue. Some patients are able to keep up with many of their usual activities despite it, including moderate exercise. Others may have more difficulty completing household tasks.
“It can be helpful to stay active during your treatment, but if you’re feeling tired, listen to your body and stop and rest,” says Hassan. “This is not the time to power through it.”
10. Don’t keep your questions or concerns to yourself
The key to a smooth course of chemotherapy is good communication between you and your care team.
“Things that affect your cancer treatment might not even occur to you,” says Hassan. “So, anything you’re thinking about doing, it’s always a good idea to ask.”