Cancer treatment usually involves taking a lot of medications. In addition to drugs directly related to treatment, cancer patients may also be taking medicines for pain, nausea, low blood counts and other treatment- or cancer- related symptoms. Some patients may take up to 20 pills a day. Keeping track of all these can be a challenge. With some organization, you can make sure you're taking the right medication at the right time, and avoid dosing errors.
Keep a record of your medications
Your care team needs to know exactly what you're taking to provide you with the best care and to prevent unwanted drug interactions.
To help, maintain a master list of all of your medications. This should include basic information like your name, home and work phone numbers, blood type, medical conditions, emergency contact information, your doctor’s name and phone number and a list of any food or drug allergies. Keep the drug list with you and bring it to every doctor's appointment.
The list should also include the following information about specific drugs:
- Name and strength of the medication
- Dosage instructions
- The color of the pill
- What you are taking it for
- When you began taking it
- Any food or drug interactions
- Any over-the-counter medications, vitamins and herbal supplements you’re taking. Some of these can interact with your prescription medication and possibly interfere with their effectiveness.
Organizing your medications
There are many ways to help you remember when to take your medications. Choose the system that works best for you.
Pill organizers: These containers, available in different shapes and sizes at drug stores, have compartments for the pills to be taken each day, or at different times of the day. Some have child safety locks, reminder alarms and automatic pill dispensers. There are also an assortment of alarms and watches that signal you when it’s time to take medication.
Create your own organizer: Place each day’s pills in a small cup (or two cups if you take medications at two different times of day). If you must take pills several times throughout the day, an empty egg carton can be an effective organizer. Number the 12 sections of the carton for 12 hours of the day. Place medications you need to take at specific times in the proper container.
Charts and calendars: Write your drug schedule on a calendar, and cross items off when you have taken those pills. You can also use different-colored stickers on the lids of each medicine bottle. Every time you take the medicine, place a sticker of the same color on the calendar as a visual reminder of which pills you’ve taken.
Last updated Oct. 19, 2021.
Whether they’re chemotherapy drugs (such as vismodegib), high-potency pain relievers (considered controlled substances), or drugs that target specific defects on cancer cells (vemurafenib), it’s important to know how to properly dispose of these medicines.
“The dangers of having unused or expired medications lying around the house are well-documented,” says Lori Bertrand, retail pharmacy manager at MD Anderson. “Every day, parents head to the emergency room or contact poison control centers because their children have accidentally ingested medications intended for someone else.”
Here’s what you should know about disposing of your unused or expired medications.
How to find an authorized collection location
The first step in disposing of unused prescriptions is to identify an authorized collection location in your area. You can find one using this search tool on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) website or by searching for “authorized takeback locations” online.
MD Anderson is now an authorized collection location, so medications can be placed in one of two green disposal bins on campus. These bins are located outside the pharmacies in the Main Building (Floor 2, near Elevator C) and in the Mays Clinic (Floor 2, near The Tree Sculpture).
The DEA also sponsors a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day event twice a year, usually on Saturdays in April and October. During these events, you can drop off your unused and expired medications at police stations, fire stations and other local civic centers designated as official collection sites.
Any type of unused or expired medication — including over-the-counter drugs such as cough syrup or antihistamines, and even veterinary medicines — can be dropped off on these days for proper disposal by law-enforcement personnel.
“But if you are on a clinical trial, do not use these bins,” notes Bertrand. “It is very important that you return all medications to your research nurse or clinical study coordinator.”
How to dispose of medicines at home
In cases where no authorized collection location is nearby, or a “take-back day” is still months away, you can safely dispose of some unused and expired medications at home.
Most medications can be sealed in a container with something unpalatable — such as used cat litter, sawdust or old coffee grounds — and discarded in the regular household trash.
But some prescriptions, such as high-dose pain relievers, should be flushed down the toilet to prevent drug abuse or accidental ingestion by children. Disposing of other types of medicines (such as birth control pills, antibiotics, or mood-altering chemicals) by flushing them is not advised, as traces of pharmaceuticals have been found in both water supplies and wildlife.
Prescriptions should also never be given to anyone else.
“It is not only illegal to give someone a drug that wasn’t prescribed for them, it is also unsafe,” says Bertrand. "Chemotherapy and pain medications taken by many MD Anderson patients are particularly dangerous. Great care must be taken to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.”
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.