4 Things You Should Do and 3 You Shouldn’t

Until recently, cancer patients got most of their care from professionals, often in the hospital. But improvements in cancer treatments, along with tighter health-care dollars, mean that patients now get much of their care at home.

What caregivers should do more often—and what to avoid…


Don’t serve raw vegetables without taking precautions.

You would think that fresh, uncooked vegetables would be the perfect food for someone with cancer. But if your loved one is having chemotherapy, raw produce can be dangerous.

Celery, cucumbers and other raw vegetables (and fruits) may harbor harmful bacteria. People who are healthy are unlikely to be affected—or will recover quickly if they happen to get sick. In people undergoing ­chemotherapy, the immune system may be too weak to fend off an infection. A food-borne illness can be dangerous or even fatal.

Fruits and vegetables need to be very carefully washed—caregivers might use soaps made for fruits and vegetables. Or serve lightly cooked vegetables. Fruits you can peel, such as apples, oranges and bananas, are safer than other fruits.

Don’t push too much activity.

Cancer treatments can cause precipitous physical and emotional swings. Someone might feel really strong and energetic for a few days, then feel terrible for a while. Caregivers need to be sensitive to the cycles and be ready to back off when their loved one hits a wall.

Example: Regular exercise is critical for patients who are undergoing cancer treatment. You should encourage your loved one to stay active even if all he/she can manage is a walk to the mailbox once a day. But you don’t want to push the issue if he isn’t up for it. During the “down” times, rest might be more important than exercise.

Exception: Pay attention if you notice a distinct change in your loved one’s activity levels. Someone who loses all interest in the things that he used to enjoy could be suffering from depression. Encourage him to talk to the treating oncologist.

Don’t ignore diarrhea.

It’s a common side effect of chemotherapy—and depending on the severity of the diarrhea and the type of cancer being treated, it can lead to severe illness and even death. Some patients even have to stop chemotherapy because of uncontrolled diarrhea.

For mild loose stools, encourage your loved one to take in more ­fluids. Sports drinks such as Gatorade are helpful because they replace electrolytes as well as fluids.

Also helpful: Live-culture yogurt. Its beneficial bacteria—known as ­probiotics—can help prevent ­diarrhea, bloating and other digestive ­problems.

Important: Call your doctor or nurse right away if the patient has six or more loose bowel movements a day. A doctor or nurse might recommend a diarrhea-stopping medication such as loperamide (Imodium) and dietary changes or other treatments. Always check with a health-care professional before giving the patient any medicine or supplements—even if these are over the counter.


Do wash your hands a lot.

You already know that frequent hand-washing can help prevent colds, the flu and the like. If you’re caring for someone with cancer, it’s among the most important medical interventions you can do at home. Chemotherapy reduces white blood cells and causes a major decline in the body’s ability to resist infections. The risk for infection is highest one to two weeks after a treatment. Some types of radiation therapy also reduce immunity, though not as much as chemotherapy.

Caregivers should wash their hands at least six times a day—and always before preparing foods or giving hands-on care (such as applying moisturizer or buttoning clothes).

Do watch for skin problems.

Dry skin is a common side effect of cancer treatments. Dryness might just cause itching, but it also can lead to inflammation and infection.

If you see dry areas, treat them with a moisturizing cream or ointment. (They’re better than lotions because they have a thicker consistency.) For prevention, encourage your loved one to apply a moisturizer to the skin within 15 ­minutes after bathing or showering…­reapply the moisturizer before bedtime…and moisturize hands after washing.

Important: Some cancer drugs can make the skin very sensitive to sunburn. If your loved one is spending time outdoors, remind him to apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. A sunscreen is particularly important to protect the patient’s scalp when treatments have caused hair loss.

Do offer spicy foods.

The drugs that control the crippling nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy are much better than they used to be, but a majority of patients still are at risk for nausea. People assume that the best way to prevent nausea is to serve bland foods, such as plain rice or a clear soup.

Not true. Research has shown that cancer patients prefer spicy or full-­flavored foods. When preparing meals, try introducing small amounts of strong spices—pepper, chile, salt, cilantro. Chemotherapy changes the taste buds. Foods often taste metallic or have no taste at all. Highly seasoned foods can disguise the “off” taste. But go slowly to see how well the patient tolerates them.

You also might want to use plastic instead of metal utensils. It will make foods taste less metallic.

Do encourage water consumption.

Chemotherapy often causes a dry mouth and/or mouth sores. Encourage your loved one to drink as much water as possible—at least eight to 10 full glasses daily. Make sure that a glass of water (or a glass of ice chips, if he has trouble drinking) always is close by. The moisture will lubricate mucous membranes in the mouth and help prevent sores as well as dryness.

Also helpful: Magic mouthwash. It’s the term for medical solutions that are used to treat mouth sores. Some of the solutions are premixed (such as First-BXN Mouthwash)…others are made to order (compounded) by a pharmacist. The solutions contain a combination of ingredients, which may include anti­biotics, antifungal agents and/or steroid medications. Your loved one’s doctor should decide which ingredients the solution should contain—ask about it.