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.
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.
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 drop-off 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.
Bring prescriptions back to MD Anderson
Medications issued by our pharmacies may also be returned to MD Anderson year-round. Any MD Anderson outpatient pharmacy location can handle these returns, but patients and caregivers should plan to stay long enough for a pharmacy staff member to sort through the medications before leaving.
“Our pharmacies do accept some medications, but we can’t keep any controlled substances,” says Pharmacy resident Devlin Smith. “So patients and caregivers will need to spend a few minutes here. That way, we can look through their medicines and return any we can’t accept.”
MD Anderson became an authorized collection location in February 2019, so patients and other visitors may discard some of the controlled substances our pharmacists can't accept (Schedule II-IV, such as hydrocodone, morphine and tramadol) in one of the two green take-back bins on campus. These bins are located outside the MD Anderson pharmacies in the Main Building (Floor 2, near Elevator C) and in Mays Clinic (Floor 2, near The Tree Sculpture).
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 also safely dispose of unused and expired medications at home.
Most medications can be sealed in a plastic bag 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. Prescriptions should also never be given to anyone else.
“People need to be very, very cautious, especially with opioids,” Smith adds. “Some patients have developed really high tolerances for painkillers, so for them, it’s fine, but that dose could kill another person if they were exposed to it.”
“The chemotherapy and pain medications taken by many MD Anderson patients are particularly dangerous,” Bertrand adds, “and great care must be taken to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.”
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.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
This article was updated on April 18, 2019 to include new medication disposal options at MD Anderson.