Cancer is not contagious, and neither is chemotherapy. However, harmful chemotherapy drugs can sometimes still be present in the bodily fluids of a person going through chemotherapy treatment. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it takes about 48 to 72 hours for chemotherapy medications to leave the body. Until that time, the harmful drugs are still present in the bodily fluids of the person being treated, such as sweat, urine, and vomit.
For the most part, people don’t tend to share these bodily fluids with each other, but it’s possible that those who are in closest contact with the person being treated—namely, the members of their household—to also come into contact with bodily fluids. This is the case for nearly any family member but is especially the case for spouses and caregivers.
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Luckily, there are some things you can do to prevent members of your family from touching bodily fluids that might be contaminated with chemotherapy drugs. The ACS encourages the following precautions for people undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Some of them may also apply to primary caregivers of the person undergoing treatment:
- Sitting down when using the toilet to reduce splashing
- Using a separate toilet from the rest of the household if possible
- Machine washing clothing and bedding with warm water and laundry detergent
- Washing materials contaminated with bodily fluids separately from other items
- Washing hands with warm soapy water and drying with disposable towels
- Sealing contaminated items such as adult diapers and sanitary products inside two plastic bags and washing hands after throwing them away
- Properly disposing of vomit down the toilet with two flushes, cleaning the surrounding area with hot soapy water, and washing hands afterward
The ACS also has recommendations for how to avoid having a baby, toddler, or child in the home come into contact with chemotherapy drugs. These members of your family aren’t likely to come into contact with drugs or bodily fluids, but precautions should still be taken for the safety of young children.
- Follow the cleaning precautions above to protect babies and children from coming into contact with contaminated substances
- Change diapers and clothing on a sanitized surface
- Use disposable diapers to avoid contamination
- If taking chemo medications or other drugs at home, store them out of reach of children
- Store cleaning products in a safe secure location where children can’t get them
Every chemotherapy drug is a little different, so talk to your doctor about the specific drugs you’re taking and what precautions you should take at home.
You can further protect your family from harm by avoiding conception and nursing while you’re undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Use a condom during sexual activity, both to prevent pregnancy and to keep chemical waste from transferring to your partner through your bodily fluids.
In turn, household members can protect their immunocompromised loved one who is undergoing chemo by implementing some measures of safety and cleanliness. Family members and those in close proximity to a cancer patient should wash hands regularly, get their flu shots, self-quarantine when ill, and avoid sharing personal items, particularly those that come into contact with the nose or mouth.
Battling the Emotional Side of Chemo
Sadly, chemicals aren’t the only thing you might have to worry about when considering the ways in which chemotherapy could impact your family. Cancer treatment can also take a huge emotional toll on members of your household, especially children.
Toddlers and children may not be capable of fully understanding what you’re going through and why, but they’re very good at picking up on emotional changes in their normally stable environments.
CancerCare offers these suggestions that parents and caregivers can use to talk to children about cancer and chemotherapy.
- Reassure children using a calm voice
- Prepare an explanation in advance and be open with children about what’s happening
- Use age-appropriate language but include proper terminology where needed
- Explain what changes a child can expect to see in the household and in their loved one
- Remind them that they can talk to family and friends for extra support
- Encourage them to express their feelings
- Show them plenty of love and affection during this difficult time
Chemo patients shouldn’t hesitate to reach out for extra emotional support for themselves as well. Professional help or a support group may be the way to go if a patient feels they’re putting too much of an emotional burden on family and friends.
Chemotherapy is a life-changing treatment that has both benefits and risks for not only the patient but everyone in close proximity to that person. Please remember to take care of the emotional and physical health of yourself and your family during this difficult time, even if that means enlisting help from others. It’s so important!
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