A diagnosis of cancer brings with it a kit list that will eclipse all kit lists you have ever known. Products you may have never even heard of – let alone needed – are about to become your new best friends.
I have always been one to look for solutions. This list is the result of extensive Googling, leaflet reading, a few politely-worded emails and the generosity of friends. Each one of the items listed below has helped me smile through active treatment. I am writing them here so that they can help you do the same.
The list is by no means comprehensive, but based on my personal experience, the side effects I encountered and, in the case of medicines, what I was prescribed (I am no medical expert, so always seek the advice of your oncologist). When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know where to turn for a practical, experience-based shopping list. By consolidating my search results, I hope to make the journey easier for those facing treatment in the future. You may even get some ideas for gifts if you or your friends and family are looking to treat someone with a cancer diagnosis.
My only tip before reading on is to bear in mind that you won’t need everything all at once. I have headscarves that have never been close to my head and a nightdress I never wore simply because I rushed to stock up. It’s best to start with the basics and build up as and when you need. And, most importantly, listen to your body. Otherwise, you’ll be on eBay clearing your house rather than celebrating the end of active treatment when it’s time to move on!
Good luck with your journey and I hope the below helps you smile through even your darkest of days.
I will be adding to this list over time, but if there is anything you think worth mentioning that I could try, please email me at Jackie_scully@hotmail.com
- PICC line cover: A tubi-grip on your arm is not something you can easily disguise in the summer months. A PICC line cover can make things look a little more iPod cover like rather than ‘there’s-a-tube-in-my-arm’-like. I got mine from a wonderful lady called Courtney, who is an ER nurse in America and also runs of Riley Jane Designs. She posted them to the UK and they are beautifully made. They are reversible too, so great for adding a bit of variety into your day. You can check out her amazing skills on Etsy. Click here to find out more.
- LIMBO: Ok, so it might look like a radioactive sleeve, but this waterproof PICC line protector is your ticket to a stress-free shower. Click here to find out more.
Even if you fear the dentist, a check-up before chemo, is a good idea. My dentist chemo-proofed my mouth and I felt a lot happier going into treatment.
- Difflam mouthwash: The mouth becomes vulnerable during chemo and can be susceptible to ulcers, which can make it hard to eat. Difflam was so helpful in clearing up any problems. Used regularly it can reduce any associated pain and prevent further mouth issues. It is available on prescription, so is something to raise with the oncologist or GP if you are concerned.
- Gel Clair: This gel-like substance is useful for relieving pain. I only used the free sample to be honest, as I found the texture a little strange, but it did seem to have an impact. I would order yourself a free sample here to see if it does the job for you.
- Soft children’s toothbrush: Your sensitive mouth will love you for going all soft. Think adult toothbrush, think brillo pad! Make sure you change it regularly too.
- Corsodyl: If you aren’t having too many mouth issues, you should be able to get by with Corsodyl (avoiding alcohol-based mouthwashes throughout). Although available over the counter, you can get it on prescription for free.
- Lip balm: The lips can turn a little white on drugs such as Tax and also get quite dry. I used Burt’s Bee lip balm and Vaseline mainly.
- Fluconazole: A fluffy white tongue is certainly not something I’d wish for again. Luckily, after its first appearance (bit of oral thrush), I was prescribed fluconazole to take as a preventative measure. Worked a treat, so ask your oncologist if you are worried.
NB: Beware Bonjela! It’s quite strong, so attacked the lining of my mouth and landed me at the dentist. They advised against using it through treatment.
The following suggestions are things I tried to help when my tastebuds left the building during each cycle. I ate the below around a healthy diet of three meals a day (I ate normally even though I couldn’t taste anything), so please think of these as extras rather than a menu!
- Extra strong mints: At times, this little white mint was the only thing that could help me feel like my tastebuds were actually only in hibernation rather than gone forever.
- Ribena/squeeze of lemon: Water can end up tasting foul, so it’s good to stock up on your favourite squash or cordial to help you take on as much liquid as you can (this is so important to help flush your system). A squeeze of lemon in tap water is a good tip if you eat out during treatment. It is also a healthy way of making water palatable.
- Ice lollies: Cold and sugary, ice lollies have a way of soothing the mouth. We did eat them while having chemo (as recommended by other patients) to try and prevent mouth problems (a bit like the cold cap preventing hair loss). While I don’t think it was particularly effective, it did taste good. We also tried freezing grapes for a similar use, but they ended up thawing a bit and going all mushy! Frozen smoothies (eg Del Monte) are amazing if you are looking for something a little healthier.
- Jelly babies: Juicy and sugary, even without sweet tooth, these sweeties made me smile. Still not sure why people make green sweets though. The orange and red ones are always the best!
- Fruit: When sugary items are all that hit the spot, fruit can be a real lifesaver. Blueberries, apples and pineapple chunks were my treats of choice. Juiced or popped in the mouth, they are a little piece of healthy heaven.
- Herbs and spices: Mindful of course of who else will be dining with you, an extra dash or two of flavour can transform an otherwise tasteless meal. Chilli powder, I love you!
- Bran-based breakfast: Constipation didn’t stand a chance in the face of bran, bran and more bran for breakfast. Does feel like eating cardboard, but it was so worth it. I also made a beef and prune casserole (just don’t add too many prunes)!
- Haven in your Kitchen: The Haven charity has a wonderful cookbook, which has lovely, healthy and tasty meals. My favourites are the beef and prune casserole, chicken pilau and the seabass with pomegranate molasses. You can grab a copy here.
- COOK meals: These lovely ready-for-the-freezer meals are wonderful if you don’t think you’ll always have the energy to stand by the cooker. I was lucky enough to be gifted COOK vouchers and found them so useful – and tasty. As an alternative, you could prepare and freeze meals in advance.
- Ginger cookies: As a keen baker, I turned chemo days into the search for the ultimate ginger chemo cookie. Ginger is great for nausea (ginger tea was also pretty good) and by inviting recipes from across the world, I found my favourite cookie for dunking. You can read more in lesson number 79. Click here for the blogpost.
- Queasy drops: If you like the taste of raspberry, these are certainly worth a try. They certainly took the edge off for me.
- Flat lemonade: Sounds hideous, but is actually rather nice when the nausea descends. Cheap too!
- Emend (Aprepitant): This wonder drug is not always prescribed for anti-sickness. I received it after vomiting in cycle two and found it amazing. It is expensive, but worth asking for if you suffer from sickness.
- Nail varnish: Chemo likes to attack the nails, so by painting them in a dark colour you can both strengthen them and disguise any discolouration (and chemo lines). I started with a clear strengthening nail varnish, followed by two coats of a dark colour. I occasionally used the strengthener as a top coat to try and avoid it coming off as soon as it was applied (I am a bit impatient). Pretty enjoyable for a preventative measure! You may be able to get your hands on some ice gloves in the chemo unit. This can help with the side effects.
- Hand cream: I found my hands became quite dry during treatment. I used a variety of different creams from Aveda and Burt’s Bees to L’Occitane. They were all gifted to me and I couldn’t pick a favourite.
- Anti-bacterial hand gel: Handy for keeping other people’s germs at bay!
- Hats: headwear is a very personal decision based on your style preferences and feelings towards looking like your may be undergoing treatment. I attended my NHS wig consultation and had blonde Suzie as back-up, but I favoured hats. Having never worn anything other than a bobble hat before, I loved buying different colours and experimenting. I would recommend going to a Headstrong appointment (or free headwear session) before buying anything. The session can provide you with great advice, discounts and online links as well as giving you the chance to try lots of hats and scarves to work out what suits your face shape. You get a free scarf too! My favourite styles were from Christine Headwear (Yoga Bamboo Turban, which comes in lots of colours) and Surburban Turban (I loved their hats with little peaks)
- Sunhats: wide brim hats are useful in the summer months to prevent your neck from getting sunburn (the skin is especially sensitive when on chemo).
- Tissues: Neglect nose hair loss at your peril! You certainly won’t need a spicy curry to make your nose run. It will have a mind of its own.
- Sleep caps: adding in another hairless extremity makes it more difficult you regulate your temperature. Sleep caps are handy particularly in the cooler months. I got mine from Bold Beanies (click here to view). They have beautiful prints and you can even customise your order.
- Gimme Brow and Browzings from Benefit: I am lucky to have very light eyebrows, but Benefit does do some great products if you are looking to give your thinning eyebrows a bit more shape. I would also recommend a Look Good, Feel Better workshop. Trained volunteers from the beauty industry offer some great tips for drawing on bits that fall off – and there’s a goodie bag too.
- Factor 50 sun cream: This doesn’t mean an end to that healthy-looking summer glow. I managed one even after covering myself in layers of the stuff. I bought a big spray bottle and a handy handbag sized one, just in case the sun came out unexpectedly (a rare occurrence in the UK normally, but not this year)!
- Facial wipes: Sometimes the fastest of skincare routines is all you can face. I love these facial wipes for making me feel clean with very little effort. Good for tired days (and, in fact, any days)!
- Summer scarves: Lightweight scarves are brilliant for covering up from the sun and also warming you up if, like me, you find your body yo-yoing between hot flushes and goosebumps. Friends sent me such lovely scarves from Crew Clothing, Cath Kidston and The White Company.
- Aqueous cream: While views on its use as a moisturiser vary, as a body wash I found it lovely and kind on my skin.
- Gentle moisturiser: I found my skin looked a lot better (people kept commenting on it), but it was a lot more sensitive. It is worth experimenting with skincare products as you may find your regular creams are a bit too harsh.
- Antiseptic cream: Things don’t heal as well on chemo, so always good to have some Savlon or Germolene, just in case you get bitten or scratched.
- Clonidine: With an ER-positive cancer, the normal hormone-based hot flush treatments are not an option. This tablet is designed to lower blood pressure, but it works well on hot flushes too.
- Comfy layers: A lot of sweating has taught me that it is better to have lots of thin layers than a few thick ones!
- Senna: Only needed to use it once. Very effective. Bottom agrees!
- Eye drops: Remove those eyelashes and your eyes can become quite sore. I was prescribed some Hypromellose eye drops, which did the trick.
- Omeprazole: Having never experienced heartburn before, I was pretty shocked when I first noticed a pain near my sternum. I was prescribed Omeprazole, which worked well for me (nothing like a lack of tastebuds and pain when eating to put your off your food)!
- Digital thermometer: Your constant companion to monitor your temperature. Before rushing out to buy one, check to see if your hospital provides one. I ended up with two because I had no idea there would be a freebie!
- Inflatable bath pillow: When you can’t face the thought of placing your bald head on a cold bath, this little pillow works a treat. Just make sure you squeeze the plastic nozzle hard before trying to blow it up (mine didn’t come with instructions and it took me ages to work it out).
- Toweling robe: Who needs a towel when you can wrap yourself up in a robe to dry your bath-soothed skin? I splashed out and got one from The White Company. Made bath time a lot more exciting! Great for days when you don’t even want to lift a limb.
- Gardening gloves and marigolds for washing up: Infections can’t get close to you in these babies!
- Neal’s Yard Night Time Remedies to Roll: This little roll-on relaxation stick is lovely for helping to send you off to sleep. I got very little sleep due to hot flushes on chemo, but this made me feel like I could at least lie down and rest. The smell is lovely!
Breast reconstruction surgery
The following tips are based on my experience of DIEP surgery (basically, a mastectomy, axillary clearance and reconstruction using my tummy fat). The below is focused on products, and my tips section (coming soon) will cover more general advice on how to prepare your house before surgery and what to expect on op day.
- Button down nightshirts or nighties: Easy access is all you need in hospital when you have wounds, drains and a new boobie to inspect. Regardless of the time of year, aim for lightweight layers rather than thermals (it can get pretty hot in hospital). I would aim to bring two nightshirts/nighties so you can change (and encouraging a friend or relative to rinse them through would be great)!
- Dressing gown: A thin dressing gown is ideal for toilet trips and sitting out of bed. I would advise leaving the fluffy toweling robe at home and choosing something that will wash easily.
- Button down or zip up clothes: While it may sound lovely to rest in bed all day if, like me, you end up on a moving mattress, you’ll be desperate to sit out in your chair. Some loose fitting clothes will help save your nighties and make you feel more comfortable getting out and about. Have a think about the clothes you’d like to go home in. I wore them to the hospital for op day so I need have too many tracksuit bottoms in my locker.
- A front-fastening bra: Comfort is key after breast surgery, so it’s important to get the right bra for you. I took my bra with me into surgery so it could be put on while I was asleep. Due to the swelling, it’s good to go up by one back size so the bra doesn’t feel tight (you might want to bring a few sizes just in case and the return the one you don’t use). Front-fastening bras are great for post-surgery recovery because nurses can undo do them without having to move you. You’ll be wearing your bra at night for a while, so it’s worth trying out a few non-wired styles to find the most comfortable fit. I am still living in my Royce post-surgery bra (and sleeping in it). It is pricier than some other bras, but it feels like you have nothing on.
- Slippers or flip flops: Unsteady feet need sturdy footwear! Forget the fluffy mules and opt for something that fits your feet well so you can walk around and climb the stairs without worrying about losing your footing. Flip flops are a good alternative and are quick to slip on.
- Big knickers: Bridget Jones would be proud! If you’re planning on laughing, coughing or moving around, big knickers or ‘magic pants’ are a huge help. They can be quite tight to get on and off, but they can make getting in and out of bed a lot easier. They’re handy in the weeks after surgery too. It’s worth bringing more pairs than you think you’ll need for your hospital stay, so you don’t run out (plus a few normal cotton pairs too in case you get too hot). I can’t say I am wearing them now, but I think fondly of our time together.
- Drain bags: if you’ve been advised that you will have drains after surgery (they look a little bit like sports bottles attached to a tube), it is really handy to bring a bag (for example, a natural shopping bag) that you can slip over your shoulder. This frees up your hands if you need to steady yourself while walking. People do make and gift fabric drain bags too, so it’s worth asking your breast reconstruction nurse if there are any available. Same goes for an easy-to-carry wash bag! If you’re feeling crafty, click here for a drain bag pattern (you will need to scroll down a bit).
- Overnight bag: In some cases, you will hand over your bag to the team before surgery (so it can find its way to the ward without you). That’s why it’s best to opt for something that fastens well and doesn’t leave a trail of your belongings across the hospital. You also don’t need a massive suitcase. The less you bring, the less you have to worry about.
- Ear plugs and eye masks: Hospitals can be quite noisy and light, even at night, so it pays to be prepared. I also experimented with sleep apps before going in, so I had something to hand to help me drift off.
- Lip balm: After a general anaesthetic, your lips can get quite dry and chapped, so lip balm (or Vaseline) can help.
- Anti-bacterial gel and wet wipes: The bathroom can seem like a long way away if you’ve had DIEP surgery. These will help you cut a few corners in the early days!
- Travel-sized toiletries: you won’t want to be weighed down on trips to the bathroom, so I would aim to keep the cleansing routine short and light. A compact mirror is handy too.
- Sanitary towels: Bodies like to do unpredictable things after surgery and you may find you get what is known as ‘breakthrough bleeding’ if you are still having periods. The hospital can provide pads, but they are super-sized, so you’ll probably be more comfortable in your regular brand of sanitary towels.
- External power pack: Keeping in contact with friends and family is a great way to make those hospital days go faster. If you’re worried about keeping things charged up (or taking lots of chargers), you could consider buying an external power pack. These can be charged up before you’re admitted and will power your phone many times over without needing to be recharged. They also come with lots of different connectors so you can power many devices. Fewer wires mean a lot less hassle.
- Snacks: As a fan of NHS mashed potato (although this may have something to do with morphine), hospital food worked for me, but you may find your appetite harder to gauge in the days after surgery. That’s why it’s good to have a few of your favourite snacks to hand (aim for things that won’t go off) in case you’re not hungry at designated mealtimes.
- Books, puzzles, music and games: Time seems to slow down in hospital and, if visiting hours are restricted, you will need distractions to keep your spirits up. You may find it hard to concentrate, so magazines, music and puzzles as well as books are great for helping you pass the time. A notebook and pen is also handy to record any questions or collect contacts from fellow patients.
- Adbo binder/corset: Not one you can bring with you, but worth requesting if you are finding the tummy tuck tight after surgery. I wore mine for six weeks and it was such a support when it came to moving around and laughing. The binder/big pants combo is amazing!
- Breast pillow: Sleeping on your operated side may not be possible for a while after surgery. That’s when breast pillows can provide real support – not to mention much-needed protection should you share a bed. Some people use breastfeeding cushions, but there are specific breast surgery products, such as TenderCush pillows, that are great for easing discomfort. You might also want to change sides of the bed temporarily to protect your operated side even further. Setting this up before surgery means you can just sink into bed on your return home rather than rearranging your belongings.
- Extra pillows: It may take you a while to get used to sleeping on a flat mattress after your hospital stay. Surround yourself with extra pillows and you should be able to adjust the position of your back and knees to take the pressure off your tummy.
- Comfy clothes: The days post surgery are no fashion show, but by setting out piles of clothes and knickers in advance, you can make the whole process of getting dressed that little bit simpler. Stick with loose fitting clothing that does up at the front until you find it easier to change. This is particularly important if you have restricted arm movement as a result of an axillary clearance. Also try and get changed every day, as you’ll find it will give you a real boost.
- Post-surgery caddy: There is nothing worse than getting comfy to find your book is out of reach and your lip balm is in the other room! Setting up a tray or bag of essentials next to your chair is a great way to make sure you have all the essentials close to hand.
- Ready meals: If you’re worried about standing over a cooker in the weeks following surgery, it’s a good idea to stock up the cupboards and buy in some pre-cooked meals, so you always have options. Companies such as COOK (cookfood.net) can even deliver healthy frozen ready meals to your door.
- Painkillers: Without the routine of a hospital drugs round, it can be easy to get out of the habit of taking your painkillers. You may find it useful to set yourself daily reminders (either on your mobile or on a notepad) or divide out your pills at the beginning of each day.
- Speaker pillow and sleep apps: Working out what sends you to sleep can make you feel a lot more relaxed. If you love listening to music, but hate the thought of having to wear headphones, you might want to think about getting a speaker pillow for home, which plays music so only you can hear it.
- Comfy chairs: I am not advocating a trip to IKEA, but it’s worth thinking about your bottom before you go in. You may find it more difficult to both sit down on and get up from chairs in your home. That’s why it’s a good idea to test out a few options before your operation so you have something ready waiting for you when you get through the door. A chair in the bathroom is also useful for washing (especially if you can’t sit down in the bath for a while). A quick dash to the toilet won’t be possible in the early days after surgery, so it’s a good idea to think about distance to the loo when setting up your base for the day.
- Cream: Once your wounds have sealed, you will be encouraged to massage them with cream to help things recover even further. I love Moo Goo’s Udder Cream. It smells wonderful and is highly recommended as a repair cream. You are also surrounded by cow puns, which makes this both creamy and amusing!
- Physio diary: You will be set a series of physio exercises at your pre-operative assessment session and it’s important to factor them into your day. Keeping a physio diary and marking down every time you complete a set is a great way to build up an accurate picture of your activity. This will help you get stronger and avoid the trap of convincing yourself you’re exercising when you’re still sitting on the sofa!
If you’re interested in reading more about the breast reconstruction days, why not head to the ‘breast reconstruction’ category (I am excited I have now categorised all my blog posts for easy reference).
Come back soon, I haven’t had it yet 🙂