Chemotherapy is strong medicine, so it is safest for people without cancer to avoid direct contact with the drugs. That's why oncology nurses and doctors wear gloves, goggles, gowns and masks. When the treatment session is over, these items are disposed of in special bags or bins.
After each chemotherapy session, the drugs may remain in your body for up to a week. This depends on the type of drugs used. The drugs are then released into urine, faeces and vomit. They could also be passed to other body fluids such as saliva, sweat, semen or vaginal discharge, and breast milk.
Some people having chemotherapy worry about the safety of family and friends. There is little risk to visitors, including children, babies and pregnant women, because they aren't likely to come into contact with any chemotherapy drugs or body fluids. The safety measures listed below are recommended for family or friends who are providing care or have other close contact during the recovery period at home. If you have questions, talk to your treatment team or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
Chemotherapy safety in the home
Follow these safety guidelines to reduce exposure to chemotherapy drugs at home. Safety precautions can vary depending on the drugs you receive, so ask your treatment team about your individual situation.
Use a plastic bucket
Vomit into a plastic bowl or bucket (or a plastic bag with no holes). Don't use the bowl or bucket for anything else, and throw it out after your final chemotherapy session.
Clean up spills
Keep a supply of cleaning cloths, paper towels and disposable waterproof gloves handy. If any body fluids (during the week after a treatment session) or chemotherapy drugs spill onto household surfaces, put on a pair of waterproof gloves, soak up the spill with paper towels, clean around the area with a disposable cloth and soapy water, and rinse the area with water. Seal used gloves, cloths and paper towels in a plastic bag before putting them in the bin.
Take care going to the toilet
For a week after a treatment session, sit down to use the toilet. Put the lid down before flushing to avoid splashing.
Wear disposable gloves
During the week after a treatment session, wear disposable waterproof gloves when handling clothing or bedsheets soiled with vomit or other body fluids. Seal the gloves in a plastic bag and discard after use.
Keep tablets whole
Don't crush, chew or cut chemotherapy tablets. If you can't swallow a tablet whole, ask your oncologist or pharmacist whether the drugs come in other preparations (i.e. liquid).
Handle laundry carefully
Wash clothing or other items soiled with body fluids separately. Use the longest washing machine cycle (hot or cold water can be used). Line dry the items.
Use a condom or a female condom if having any type of sex after a chemotherapy session. Your doctor or nurse can give you more details about how long you need to use protection.
Put medicines in a safe place
Store all tablets, capsules or injections as directed by your oncologist or pharmacist – they often need special storage to keep them effective and safe. Keep them out of reach of children, and do not store them in a pill organiser with other medicines.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Avoid pregnancy while having chemotherapy. If you have a baby, you will not be able to breastfeed during your course of chemotherapy.
Expert content reviewers:
Dr Prunella Blinman, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, and Clinical Senior Lecturer, Sydney Medical School, The University of Sydney, NSW; Gillian Blanchard, Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Nursing and Midwifery, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Julie Bolton, Consumer; Keely Gordon-King, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; John Jameson, Consumer; Dr Zarnie Lwin, Medical Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, and Senior Lecturer, School of Medicine, The University of Queensland, QLD; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Felicia Roncolato, Medical Oncology Staff Specialist, Macarthur Cancer Therapy Centre, NSW..