Top Cancer Survival Questions

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on June 1, 2012


Oncology nurses work with cancer patients every day. They know what’s on patients’ minds.  “Many times patients are more comfortable talking to us than to a doctor,” says Sherrie Flores, a nurse practitioner in the Thyroid Cancer Survivorship Clinic at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. “We see patients from a medical perspective, but we’re also patient advocates.” Here are oncology nurses’ answers to the questions cancer patients ask most often.

Will chemotherapy make me sick? 

“Certain patients are at higher risk for nausea—someone who gets motion sickness or nausea during pregnancy,” says Susan Sakalian, an oncology nurse at Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care in the Bronx. “But not every chemo drug causes nausea. And multiple drugs can fight nausea, each acting on different brain pathways.” 

Will I lose my hair?

Not all chemo drugs cause hair loss. But if yours does—usually within the first three to six weeks after treatment begins–you know the chemo is working, says Flores: “The chemo is attacking cells that reproduce quickly, which includes hair follicles.  But your hair usually starts to regrow within six weeks after chemotherapy has stopped.”

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Chemo makes my mouth and nose sore.  What can I do?

“Your mouth gets sore because it too has rapidly dividing cells,” says Sakalian.  “Ask your doctor about a saline spray for your nose and for special mouth rinses to use three to four times a day, especially before meals.” You can also rinse with a mix of saltwater and baking soda to keep your mouth clean and lubricated.  A humidifier will help as well. If you can’t swallow, let your doctor know right away.

How can I avoid infection?

“Patients undergoing chemotherapy are susceptible to infection because their white blood count is low,” says Flores. “Avoid infections by avoiding people and washing your hands whenever you touch things” like doorknobs.  Don’t share utensils or towels, and carry hand sanitizer in your pocket, says Sakalian.  A mask may also be helpful.

When will I know that the treatment is working? That I’m “cured?”  

The only way is to talk with your doctor. “Ask him or her, ’How many treatments will I receive?  How will you measure my response to treatment? Will I be scanned? Will you look at blood work?’” says Sakalian. “Once you complete treatment, and there is no evidence of disease, you will still need to follow up with your oncologist, maybe every three months at first.”