How to pick a chemo bag and what to put in it

If you’ve landed on this article, you’re either about to start chemotherapy, or you have a loved one who is, and you want to know how to make the infusion visits as comfortable as possible. There are lots of ways to do exactly that. Below I share the essentials and also the nice-to-haves that made my regimen – 4 weeks of Adriamcyin (“Red Devil”) and Cyclophosphamide, followed by 2 weeks of Taxol and another 10 weeks of Abraxane – a little bit easier to take. 

  1. A lightweight and roomy tote bag. 

No need to go big on the budget here. The week before my first infusion, my sweet friend Robin gifted me with a bunch of thoughtful goodies, loading up one of those reusable $1.99 Marshall’s/HomeGoods/TJ Maxx bags that you can buy at checkout. 

As of this writing, I’m one year plus post chemo and that bag is still one of my first go-to options, as useful at Aldi as it is on a weekend getaway. I promise you will get lots of use out of it and better yet, the material holds up. Flimsy tote bags won’t cut it here.

You’ll be setting it down and picking it up a lot each visit…from check-in to the lab waiting room to the lab chair to the doctor’s waiting room to his or her exam room to the infusion room waiting area to the infusion chair and then back to the car. 

Once you’re back home, have your caregiver clean it with a Clorox or Lysol wipe, and then fold it up to keep by the back door. It will be ready to go the next time you need it. 

  • Lots and lots of bottled water.

Heed the advice of your physician and chemo nurse above all else. For me, starting on Red Devil, it was paramount to pound water during the infusion. I aimed for 100 ounces each time (six of those standard sized plastic water bottles is just over that amount at 16.9 ounces each). 

Your treatment bay will most likely have a kitchenette with water fountains and other beverage options, but once I was settled in the chair and tethered to an I/V pole, I wasn’t much interested in having to cross the room to refill my Hydro flask (plus, it was too heavy when it was full – chemo will make you physically weaker than you ever thought possible).  

On that note, though, understand that you’ll probably need to pee a lot and often from said water consumption. So, if the chemo nurse gives you the option, choose an infusion chair that’s relatively close to the restroom. And don’t be afraid to get up and push the pole right along with you as you walk. I was intimidated because the whole infusion experience at first feels overwhelming. But the nurses are some of the most wonderful human beings you will ever meet, and they will help you safely move around as much as you need. And yes, in case you’re wondering, you do have your privacy in the restroom, though I have no doubt if I’d needed them in there too, they’d gladly have done it, preserving my dignity all the while. 

Chemo nurses are special people y’all.  

  • A large, plush and cozy blanket. 

The cozier the better! Infusion rooms are cold, and you’re drinking all that water too, remember? This is one of the most practical and loving gifts that family and friends can give you. 

There is a very thoughtful and craft-savvy friend in my life who worked for weeks to cross-stitch an afghan from the softest yarn I think I’ve ever felt. If you don’t have the time or patience to do that (*as I raise my hand on both counts*), there are about 10,000 options out there you can buy.

My team at work gave me a gorgeous purple blanket, emblazoned with affirmative words woven into its fabric. It’s still a family favorite and often comes out on movie nights at home, or evenings on the back porch. 

Just make sure the blanket is soft and durable – scratchy fabrics, however beautiful, can irritate your skin. Ditto for embellishments like tassels, buttons, and the like. You’re basically after the closest thing to an adult-sized Snuggie that you can find. 

  • A warm hat and scarf. 

Regardless of what the weather is doing outside, your internal thermostat may get a bit out of whack from treatments – and, as mentioned above, infusion rooms tend to be on the cooler side. 

I received chemo infusions from October through early April, and here in north Texas, it was fairly cool during that winter and spring. Even if it hadn’t been though, I would have brought these items anyway. 

God already made me cold natured. Add to it the fact that I’d already had my head shaved and was still adjusting to the new look. On some of those days (a lot, actually), I felt G.I. Jane brave. Other times, I felt frighteningly unattractive, and then guilty for giving so much head space to something as superficial as physical appearance.

Even once you get used to it, being bald is still shocking (and you’re even colder than usual). I joked about my “noggin being naked”, but beneath that was a sliver of truth – you do feel pretty exposed. Whether people glance out of curiosity, pity, solidarity or because they have a spectacularly terrible poker face, it’s not the greatest feeling in the world when you’re turning heads because of medically-induced nowhere hair. 

So, silly as it may sound, I felt more confident walking into the infusion room with a cute hat on my head and a stylish scarf around my neck. My favorite scarves and hats came from Headcovers Unlimited (check Amazon before buying – I often found that the styles I wanted were less expensive there).

  • Warm socks.

I only went two rounds on Taxol, known to induce neuropathy in your hands and feet. So for those two visits, the nurse wrapped ice blocks around my feet while I plunged my hands in an ice bath during the infusion. It’s a mind over matter practice, but it’s still mighty uncomfortable. Thick, fuzzy socks with maximum arch support made the unpleasantness easier to bear. 

If you’re not the patient and are buying on their behalf, size up. Better yet, ask them for their size before you shop. I had several people give me all sorts of socks and slippers that ended up going straight to my daughter (or the Goodwill donation bag) because they were too small.

Plus, the anti-nausea meds and steroids they load you up with before the actual chemo cocktail tend to cause swelling. So, the roomier the better. Bonus points for socks with grippers on the bottom. 

  • Snacks.

If you’re anything like me, food is often top of mind. That’s when I knew chemo was kicking my booty – when I had zero interest in consuming even the tiniest morsel. Mercifully that period was short-lived. More often than not, I got a little hungry at the infusion center.

Some infusions are quite long – the actual administration of chemo medicine, but also observation periods by the nursing staff to see if you are presenting with any signs of an allergic reaction. There is also a lot of waiting in between the various prep stages – having labs drawn, waiting for the results (even a stat order can take some time), waiting to see the doctor who interprets your results and clears you for same-day treatment, provided your levels meet minimum thresholds, and so on. 

I typically spent 3 to 4 hours at the infusion center, often starting at 8:30 or 9 a.m. By mid-morning, breakfast had long worn off and I was glad I had some quick-hit proteins in my bag. A couple sticks of string cheese and hummus were all I needed to tide me over until my husband picked me up, and we went on our “chemo lunch date” before heading home. I didn’t want the hassle of packing a little cooler, but you easily could if you wanted more variety and perishable munchies.

  • Phone and earbuds (rooms are loud, constant beeps)

I’m a little noise sensitive anyway, so I found the loud, constant beeps throughout the treatment bay rather bothersome. As soon as I was settled in the chair, with my water bottles lined up like giant shot glasses on the side tray, and my body tucked under a roomy Sherpa blanket, I’d then fish out my earbuds and crank up the Yacht Rock. Or Fleetwood Mac or Dave Matthews Band or even my corny but soothing self-made You Got This! and Goodbye Cancer playlists. 

Whatever your jam is – podcasts, music, news, sports, etc. – plan to get lost in it so that you’re not dwelling on glum surroundings and depressing background noise. 

This gives me a thoughtful gift idea if you want to do something useful and kind for a loved one in treatment. Not all infusion chairs are conveniently located by wall outlets. A wireless charging block would really come in handy here. 

  • Small pillow for head and neck. 

The side effects of chemo are cumulative. The more infusions I had, the worse I felt. After awhile, I just wanted to rest my head back on the chair and take a nap during treatment. 

I never remembered to bring a small pillow but would’ve been much more comfortable if I had. The nurses were very accommodating and would give me an extra blanket to double up as a pillow, but that’s just a recipe for a crick in your neck. 

Opt for one with both head and neck support. 

  • Laptop, books, Soduku, crossword, knitting (something to do).

I went through treatment at the height of Covid – so no visitors were allowed. To pass the time, I firstly focused on work. I was fortunate to feel well enough to stay at work for the duration of my treatment, and it honestly made me feel better to do something productive and purposeful. 

So I always showed up with my laptop and work files in tow. If you aren’t working or don’t feel like it, toss in a book or magazine, Soduku or crossword puzzles – just have something to occupy your mind (and hands) while you’re sitting there going through the yucky stuff.

If you are a pay it forward person (you are really my kinda people, by the way), consider taking up a hobby like knitting. There is a self-soothing effect, but you can also use your time in the infusion chair to make a blanket that you can then gift to the infusion center so they can bless someone else with it. 

Leave a Reply