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Overwhelmed? This list can help.

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7 tips to managing medications during cancer treatment

When my sister handed me the large box of medications that I was suddenly responsible for, I felt not only overwhelmed by how many there were, but also felt quite incapable of handling such an important task. My mindset, emotions, and health were a complete mess and I knew it (you can get my book, A Cancer Made Mess to find out just exactly how much of a disaster I was). Just the thought of having to manage the large amount of medicines while trying to merely survive not only cancer itself, but also survive my poor mental state, was enough to make me break down and cry. And I did.

I ended up messing it up royally: taking the wrong pre-chemo meds at the wrong times, forgetting to give myself the non-blood clotting shots after surgery, and ending up making an emergency phone call to the Poison Control Center when I realized I had doubled up on a dose. Somehow, I survived cancer treatment and am now 11 years out of my stage iv diagnosis (no thanks to my poor medicine management skills, of course).

But thankfully I'm here and I want to help you not be the mess I was. So, I’ve created the list below to help you avoid that same panicked call I made to the Poison Control Center. Let's get your medication management on track, shall we?

Here's what I learned:

1. Write on the bottles

My sister was a life saver when she took my box of medications into the oncology appointment to find out what each was for and then wrote a very brief explanation on the actual bottle itself as a reminder to me.

Granted most directions were already written on the bottles, however I found an exact time reference easier to manage than the preprinted label directions of “every 12 hours”. For example, if she felt I needed a clearer explanation of what time of day to take a certain medication she would write the actual times: "7 AM & 7 PM". It’s the little things that help at this point.

I also appreciated the simple note of “STEROID” being on the bottle rather than the 15 letter one-worder that I would never dare attempt to say aloud let alone know what it was. With that simple word I knew and was able to say “I took my steroid this morning” rather than “I took that one word I can’t say this morning.”

Another example was when she had written "TAKE WHEN ANXIOUS" on a certain bottle. It was one of those special medications that the labels are pretty vague so the clear direction helped immensely. That point also let me know that I should take it with me wherever I go in case I started feeling particularly anxious away from my pill box at home.

I did find one complication with this though. It’s actually quite hard to find a pen that likes to write on those slick labels, just as it’s hard to find a marker that is small enough to not turn into a blob when writing small enough to fit on the label. Luckily, I’ve found that these Sharpie Ultra Fine Point Markers work perfectly for writing on the medicine bottle labels (and even the caps).

Also, I’ve created a free tracker that you might find useful for this point. It's a New Med Sheet that you can take along to your appointments in the event that you are prescribed a new medicine. You can quickly jot down the key points then when you fill pickup the prescription at the pharmacy, you will know what you would like to write on the label. You can find the New Med Sheet here in my resources.

2. Organize

As I pointed out earlier some medicines you want to take with you on the go. Others, you can leave at home if you know you’ll be home at the times of needing to take them.

I've found it a good habit to always have on me a spare “emergency” round of at least 1 days’ worth of medications; just in case something crazy happens. Let's say I were to get caught in a snow storm in my car for 24 hours, I would at least have my medications. This type of holder can be small and simple.

Here are my favorite Compact On-The-Go Pill Cases:

Decorative round pill case

Sleek Square pill case

For the bulk of your medicines, I recommend getting a weekly or monthly pill organizer. These are typically larger with a bit more organization features than a typical purse sized pill case. I suggest to set a day every week (or month, depending on how large of an organizer you decide to go with) to fill the organizer.

An Amazon shopping list for cancer patients by a cancer survivor to help them manage their medications.

Here are my favorite At-Home Pill Organizers:

Weekly pill organizer - with different times of the day & large enough to house several pills

Monthly pill organizer - 31 days instead of the standard 28 day with AM/PM sections & large enough to house several pills

Also, if you are in need of a weekly pill organizer that is good for travel I can’t help but recommend these as they are practical and sturdy.

Here are my favorite Travel Weekly Pill Organizers:

Decorative Weekly Case - Several pretty designs to choose from with 4 different times of day

Round Travel Weekly Case - AM/PM sections and sturdy construction

Here's my full list I've made: Amazon Medicine Management List that includes all of the above suggestions along with my other favorite items that help with medicine management.

3. Refill refill refill

When you realize your medicines are in need of a refill, I suggest to contact your pharmacy immediately to stay on top of it. Try to do it as soon as possible, with time enough to spare for some mishaps on the refilling process; I suggest at least 5 days ahead of time. Sometimes pharmacies are out of stock, so if you wait until the last minute to refill your medicines – you’re going to be in trouble trying to scramble to find a different pharmacy that might have it. I once had to wait TWO weeks for a certain prescription to be refilled as none of the pharmacies in town had it in stock. That was stressful, although rare. 5 days is typically a good enough amount of time for the pharmacy to order a delivery.

But the best method I found to maintain my refills is to get a 3 months’ supply. Some insurances don’t allow this but by checking with your pharmacy they can let you know whether your insurance allows it (most do nowadays). In the case that they do not, you might try calling your insurance company and explaining your situation (you are a cancer patient in active treatment that is trying to make life easier for yourself) to see if they will work with you. I once wrote a letter to my insurance company about a particular issue that I thought they wouldn’t budge on but come to find out they did decide in my favor! So, I learned that an initial answer of “no” isn’t always absolute. Sometimes the representative on the phone doesn't have the ability to make such decisions (even when talking with a manager) so you might even try writing a letter to reach the deciding eyes and ears. It’s at least worth a shot to try and see.

4. Lock Box

Now, we both know that you have a surplus of medications (or will have). A lot of them can be quite dangerous if taken by the wrong person…particularly children. If you have children in the house, and even if you don’t, I recommend to get a medication lock box. Not only will it keep them safe away from explorative fingers that might take them or lose them, but it helps you keep track of them all in one place. Trust me, having medicine bottles strewn across your apartment doesn’t help you locate what you need quickly.

Here are my favorite Medication Lock Boxes:

Large Clear Lock Box - Most similar to mine

Blue Lock Box - If you're not a fan of it being clear this one works great

5. Updated Medication List

I know how tiresome it is to be asked to list your current medication list every single time you have a doctors visit; especially considering how often you are seen by a physician during treatment. I've found that it’s just easier to just show them a list rather than go over each medication every time.

And if you’ve read this post then you know how much I stand behind this planner for a variety of reasons. It’s designed specifically for cancer patients with sections devoted to what cancer patients need most and one of which is a section for Current Medications. If you use the planner as I suggest in the post, then you’ll be bringing it to appointments anyway, so it really just makes sense to show the nurse your updated list of current medications from the planner rather than going through the list from memory each time.

But even apart from visiting physicians, it’s a good idea to have a list of current medications on you at all times for emergency reasons. I've never been to the emergency room or hospitalized as often as I was during treatment. And a lot of the instances were unplanned surprises where I needed to let the staff know what medications I was on...and quickly. The one thing I have on me almost all the time is my cell phone. So, it only makes sense to keep track of one of the most important factors of your treatment in an easily accessible spot that goes with you wherever you go.

Luckily, there are several free apps that are designed to help you keep track of your current medication list that are easily downloaded to your phone. Some even allow you to share the updated information with a doctor of your choice. At first, this option didn't seem like it was that useful but I've found that I do really like this option because when your oncologist prescribes something new you can let your primary doctor know with a few short steps (and vice versa). This keeps all of your medical team informed and up to date.

My favorite app is talked just below in the next point.

6. Reminders & Timers

Trying to remember what medication to take and when is daunting when you’re struggling with the emotional and mental toll of a cancer diagnosis. There are so many things going on trying to steal your peace of mind that you don’t really need to worry about whether or not you already took your medicine. That’s why I suggest that you get some sort of system in place to help remind you and keep track of when you actually take your meds.

My favorite app for this is the Medisafe app. It reminds you when to take your medicine, informs the people you want to be informed of your current list or changes, has a user friendly interface, tells you when you need a refill, gives medication interaction warnings, and even keeps track of other vitals and information if you so choose. Let's just does a lot. My favorite part is that it’s completely free. All you need is a phone or tablet. You can download the app here.

But, if using an app isn’t quite your thing, there are other options. Here are my other favorite items to help keep track of when to take your medication:

E-Pill with time cap - the cap has a timer and tracks when it was last opened

Take & Slide Tracker - stick the toggles onto your bottle to keep track of when you last took your medication

Med-E-Lert - A larger case with a timer

7. Share the load

I wish I would have taken my own advice on this, but I wasn't so good at this honestly. I do hope that you hear me when I say this though: it’s okay to ask for help.

You’re not weak or incapable for needing help; you’re merely a human being put in a horrible situation. It’s understandable and actually it's expected for you to receive some help and assistance during this battle (and even after).

With that being said, I hope you read this post. It shares how the people in your life can help share the heavy load you’re carrying and even has a nice LARGE note at the top stating “If a cancer patient has sent you this, they are most likely asking for help,” so feel free to share the post with family and friends. If they still don’t get the hint, don't stop there. Come flat out and ask without shaming yourself. It's okay to as for help. Ask them to write on the pill bottles. Ask them to keep records of your medications on the New Med Sheet or in your Cancer Planner. Simply ask and you might find people are more wiling to help than you thought – maybe they just don’t know how to help.

But, if you don’t have anyone in your life to help share some of the load, I encourage you to use the resources I mentioned above in this post as well as utilize the advice I share in the rest of my blog found here. And remember, where people may fail God does not. You are not alone. You always have someone on your side, holding you up, and comforting you when you need it most and His name is Jesus. I encourage you to open your heart to Him and when you do, you will see Him care for you in the most unexpected and sometimes mouth dropping ways... I know because that's what He did for me. And He loves you just as much as He loves me.

Do you have something that you're struggling with or a new idea that might help others? Tell me in the comments below.


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Hi! I'm Jessica

I'm a Stage IV cancer survivor, author, and creative business owner, on a mission to help those who are struggling with the devastation of a cancer diagnosis...



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