Strategies for successfully managing cancer medications
13 March 2023
Medication is a core part of cancer treatment and patients can face a seemingly overwhelming regime of tablets and medications to be taken at various times and days. While following the advice of a healthcare team seems the sensible course of action, some people stop taking their medication. Valion Health Nurse, Karen Eaton explains why this might happen and outlines five strategies for success.
According to Karen, the reasons why people don’t stick to their medication are complex and individual but can include:
- perceived or experienced side effects
- resistance to taking certain medications such as painkillers
- an urge to limit additional medications that may be viewed as optional on top of chemotherapy, such as anti-nausea or heartburn medication.
While Karen understands why people undergoing chemotherapy may not want to take additional medication, she says this can make things harder for them:
I saw a woman who had finished 12 cycles of chemotherapy, she was completely over it and on the last cycle finally took her painkiller and anti-nausea medication and was like ‘oh wow!’. She was so angry at herself for putting herself through more misery than necessary for 11 cycles by not adhering to her recommended medication regime.
Sticking to a medication regime is a multi-faceted issue that can change according to the stage of treatment and the patient's experiences and preferences. Karen believes that healthcare providers have an important role in providing information to patients to:
- educate them about the way medications work together to improve and manage symptoms
- reassure them that taking additional medication won’t necessarily lead to additional side effects
- provide support to ensure they stick to their medication regime.
When it comes to getting the most out of medications, she recommends five simple strategies patients can use to increase the likelihood of success.
5 strategies for success
1. See a regular GP
GPs are often the most consistent point of contact for cancer patients and the value of having a regular one can’t be underestimated, especially if you have a range of health conditions and medications to be managed. It’s easy to become cancer focused when it comes to medications, but when there’s more than one issue to be managed, having a regular and consistent GP can help to ensure there’s a balanced approach.
2. Get to know your pharmacist
Community pharmacists are one of the most useful and reliable resources available to cancer patients. A pharmacist can:
- conduct a regular review of your medication and ensure there’s no obvious clashes (which can happen if multiple healthcare providers are prescribing)
- speak to you about side effects of medications and efficacy time frames (which can be very helpful between visits to the healthcare team)
- provide your medications in Webster packing, which organises doses by day and time of day. Webster packs are very useful for patients taking multiple tablets at different time across a week and may significantly reduce the chances (and anxiety!) of missing a pill.
3. Keep a written record
Writing down which medications you need to take and when, plus any side effects, can be as simple as jotting them down in a diary or notepad.
There are also apps which make it easy to keep track of medications and side effects by prompting users to think about the immediate aftereffects of taking their medications.
While empowering for patients, Karen knows that this information can also be very helpful for healthcare providers, especially if there are any side effects:
We want to know how much patients are taking, what they’re not taking, what’s working and what’s not, and we can use this information to look at different medications if things need adjusting. The more information the better!
4. Have a support person
There’s a lot going on in the life of a cancer patient and being well-organised can be impacted by fatigue, anxiety and ‘chemo-brain’. Staying on top of a complicated medication regime is an added pressure, but often one that you can outsource to a reliable friend, partner or family member. Karen says that support people can be given the responsibility of distributing medication at the right time, but they can also be a wonderful source of support and information during doctor’s appointments:
‘Didn’t you say you wanted to ask your oncologist about that new medication and what about that weird side effect you had last week?’ … these are the sorts of conversations support people can have during appointments with doctors.
5. Take copies of scripts to appointments
For patients who need to go to multiple appointments with a range of specialists, Karen recommends keeping a copy of scripts or a list of medications to show health professionals whenever a new medication is proposed:
While information is usually sent back to the referring GP, sometimes there’s a gap in communication between specialists. Keeping a copy of documents handy if you’re seeing your oncologist one week and your diabetes specialist the next, makes it easier for everyone to stay on top of things.
What to do if you forget your medication
Helpful tips and tricks aside, sometimes life catches up and overwhelms us and that’s when it’s easy to forget to take medication. When this happens, Karen says it’s important to stay calm and try to work out which medications you forgot to take and when, and then contact the appropriate healthcare provider – whether it’s a cancer centre, palliative care team, GP or (in an emergency) an ambulance. The most important thing to remember is that there’s always someone out there who can help.
Valion Health supports eligible Teachers Health members through the Cancer Support Program.