How to Prep for a Cancer Treatment Hospital Stay

How to Prep for a Cancer Treatment Hospital Stay

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

Mental preparation

Creature comforts are important and we’ll get to your packing list in a minute. But first, it’s important to invest some time mentally and emotionally preparing for your stay. Here are some tips:

Your regular life will be (mostly) on hold. 

You’ll need to plan ahead for putting your everyday life on pause for as long as you will be in the hospital. That means care for dependents and pets, time away from work, paying bills in advance, etc. Enlist help in advance from family, neighbors, and friends. 
You may need help with transportation to-and-from the hospital and someone to check on your home while you’re away. Depending on the treatment you’re undergoing, you may need to plan to have an adult with you immediately after your discharge to help with certain tasks and keep an eye on your condition. You may want to stock up on non-perishable, healthy, easy-to-prepare grocery items to have ready when you return home. 
Talk to your care team about the likely length of your hospital stay and what your recovery will look like and plan accordingly. Then you can focus on what matters most while you’re in the hospital: your recovery. 

Hospitals can be challenging before treatment even begins. 

Hospitals are full of caring and professional staff, high-tech equipment, and expert knowledge. But they’re not necessarily ideal places to live. They can feel bureaucratic, institutional, and impersonal. They can also be bright and noisy, and they don’t allow for much privacy. Keep this in mind before you go to reduce the shock of foreign-feeling surroundings. 
Consider reaching out to other people who’ve experienced hospital stays or similar treatments and ask what it was like for them and what helped them most. Most importantly, remember to be kind, generous and gentle with yourself during this time. 

Get to know hospital facilities, staff, and routines.

Try to demystify what you’ll experience ahead of time—or as soon as possible once you arrive. If possible, arrange a tour of the unit where you’ll be staying before you’re admitted. If that’s not doable, ask your care team for a description, including sights, sounds, and routines you can expect. 
Knowing the details in advance and imagining how you will handle them can be a helpful technique for reducing anxiety before any potentially stressful experience. Once you’re in the hospital, don’t hesitate to ask staff who come in and out of your room to clarify their role in your care or at the facility and ask them to explain hospital systems and processes to you. 

Plan to take an active role in your care. 

Be aware of the details and plans for your treatment and any changes as they develop. Take notes and ask questions if something doesn’t seem right or you don’t understand. You are the one who’s ultimately in control of what happens to your body, and you can and should make informed decisions about your own care. Enlist the help of trusted friends and family in keeping track of treatment plans and asking questions, especially if you’ll be under general anesthesia or are likely to be fatigued or sleepy as a result of treatment. 

Ask about special dietary needs.

Hospital nutrition services can generally handle special diets related to medical conditions like diabetes, celiac disease, or ingredient allergies. Just make sure your care team knows about your needs and all your health conditions. Many hospitals offer patients some additional choice and can accommodate the most common requests, like vegan, Kosher, and Halal diets. 
If your hospital is smaller, in a more rural area, or you have less common dietary needs, ask in advance about food accommodations. You may want to pack extra snacks to avoid eating just the same few meals over and over again during your stay. 

Find out about any special policies related to Covid-19. 

Hospitals have restricted what visitors and patient personal items are allowed into their facilities in order to keep patients and staff safe during the pandemic. Your medical team should explain all of this to you ahead of time but make sure you’ve got the most up-to-date information, especially about visitors, since these policies can change quickly in response to local conditions in your area. 

Packing essentials

Hospitals are like hotels, in that they have a lot of the basic supplies you need to get through the day (soap, pillows, toothbrush). But those items may not be what you’re used to—and unlike in hotels they are definitely not designed to impress the guests!
There are a few different categories of supplies you’ll want to consider packing so we’ll break them down one by one. 


Stocking up on travel sizes of your preferred brands of toiletry items will let you keep some of the routines that you’re used to from home—and ensure you can meet some of your own personal needs easily without having to ask hospital staff for everything. 
Here’s a suggested shopping list:
  • Shampoo and conditioner 
  • Cleanser for face and body
  • Deodorant
  • Lotion and lip balm
  • Toothbrush—one you’re okay with tossing out to avoid bringing germs home with you
  • Comb/hairbrush
  • Razor/shaver
  • Menstrual supplies, if needed. If you expect to have mobility limitations, sanitary pads may be the easiest option. Hospital-supplied period care is typically limited to old-fashioned, bulky pads, so if you prefer something else you’ll need to bring it. 
  • Specialty items you might need, like denture cream, contact solution, etc.
  • Makeup and hair care products. If this seems odd, consider that keeping up with daily grooming routines when possible helps some people feel more in control and connected to their “normal” lives outside the hospital. (Just be aware that for some treatments, like surgery, you’ll be instructed not to wear makeup or nail polish when you first arrive, since they can interfere with procedures). 
If you’re likely to have limited mobility during your hospital stay, consider bringing these items as well to avoid extra trips to the bathroom:
  • Dry shampoo (this stuff absorbs sweat and refreshes your hair without the need for a shower)
  • Wet wipes for face and body
  • Compact mirror
  • Hair ties, clips, or a headscarf or wrap (a simple way to help you look and feel more put-together in a pinch, if this is important to you)

Peace & quiet kit

Hospitals are bustling places and your room is likely to be as well. The sights and sounds of medical equipment, harsh fluorescent lighting, other patients, and check-ins by medical and housekeeping staff can all combine to keep you in a perpetual state of exhaustion and irritation. This can be less than ideal for both your recovery and your comfort. 
Come armed with these items to help you relax, sleep, or focus on chosen activities when you want to:
  • Earplugs
  • Headphones
  • Eye mask 
  • Sunglasses (if you’re sensitive to fluorescent light they can be a lifesaver.) 

Cozy clothing

Pack clothing that’s loose, comfortable, gentle against your skin, and can be layered to adjust to the temperature of your room. Bring items for sleeping and for waking hours. Think a robe, sweatpants, nightshirt, cardigan, or hoodie sweatshirt, and a generous supply of socks and underwear. 
For mobility limitations, button-front clothing can be easier to take on and off than pullover items. Ask your medical team what to expect and if they recommend any specific items or things to avoid. Short-sleeve shirts best accommodate IV lines. Don’t count on hospital laundry services to wash your clothing the way you would at home—only bring items that can handle some rough treatment and that you wouldn’t miss much if they get lost or damaged. 

Important documents 

It’s a good idea to put all of this into one folder so it’s easy to find:
  • Photo ID
  • Insurance card
  • List of all the medications you take regularly, including the dose and dosing schedule (include over-the-counter medications and supplements). Note all your medical conditions and any allergies and plan to provide this as a quick reference to staff. 
  • A list of all your healthcare providers and their phone numbers
  • Medical power of attorney and living will
  • List of close family and friends and their contact info 


Many hospitals do allow you to bring your own snack food. Just check with your medical team about any nutrition guidelines they want you to follow and any hospital restrictions on what you can bring in. Think nonperishable, healthy, single-serve packaged items like granola bars.

Things to help you pass the time 

Boredom and isolation can be major challenges during a hospital stay, so plan to keep yourself occupied. Cell phones can interfere with some hospital equipment, so ask if you’ll be allowed to keep and use your cell phone in your hospital room. You may want to bring a laptop or tablet computer for accessing movies and TV shows and keeping in touch with friends and family (don’t forget headphones or earbuds). Most hospitals have free wifi, but ask ahead of time to be sure. 
Other items to consider bringing: books, magazines, music players, a journal and simple hobby items like knitting supplies, a sketchbook with pens or pencils, puzzle books (sudoku, crosswords), etc. 

Other helpful items

Here are some other items that can make your hospital stay more comfortable and convenient:
  • Flip-flops and/or slippers with non-slip soles. You’ll need these for the shower and for walking in the hospital. Flip-flops can be easiest to get in and out of without bending over if you’ll have mobility limitations.
  • Notebook and pens. You’ll need to jot down notes about your care, to-do items for when you leave the hospital, and other important info.
  • Your own bed pillow. Hospital pillows can have weird plastic covers and unfamiliar shapes so having your own can be a big boost to your comfort and sleep quality. Put your pillow in a distinctly colored pillowcase, so it doesn’t get confused with hospital linens (and consider bringing two so when one gets dirty you can swap out for a fresh one). 
  • Throw blanket. Again, opt for a noticeable color so it doesn’t get mistaken for a hospital blanket. 
  • A U-shaped neck pillow. This can help you sleep comfortably in an upright or gently inclined bed position if you need to.
  • Extension cords or extra-long charging cords for electronics.
  • A couple of plastic bags. Pack them in various sizes for laundry and other items.
  • A fanny pack. Snap this onto your hospital bed for easy access to small items like tissues, lip balm, etc. 
  • A water bottle. Hospitals often dispense water in small cups that can spill easily and need to be refilled often, so water bottles can be a good move.
  • Clothing and shoes to wear when you leave the hospital. Keep in mind weather considerations and any mobility limitations you might have after your treatment. The hospital may be able to wash clothing you wear when admitted— just ask ahead of time.

Things to leave at home

There are a few things you might be inclined to bring to the hospital but shouldn’t: 
  • Medication. Ask your hospital about their policies on bringing in any regular medications you take. You should have a list available with dosages and contact info for the prescribing physicians, but many hospitals prefer to dispense the actual drugs from their own pharmacies. Talk to your care team in advance about continuing regular medications while in the hospital. 
  • Tobacco products. If you’re a smoker you may or may not be able to use nicotine replacement products while in the hospital and the hospital may even provide them—but it depends on your treatment plan and hospital policies. Sometimes smokers are asked to quit weeks ahead of a surgery, for example, to reduce the risk of complications. Make sure to discuss this ahead of time with your medical team.
  • Jewelry. You may need to remove all jewelry for treatment—it can get in the way of procedures and also be a collection spot for germs. Hospitals generally do not take responsibility for missing valuables, so it’s best to just leave all jewelry safe at home. 
  • Anything sentimental and irreplaceable. Photo printouts of family and friends are great! Irreplaceable family heirlooms are not. Bring items that can comfort you and make you feel more at home but nothing that you’d be crushed to lose or see damaged. 
  • Perfume and other strongly scented items. These can trigger allergies in hospital staff and other patients so it’s best to leave cologne, powerfully scented lotions, and perfumes at home. Some hospitals even have a scent-free policy so check whether you need to bring only unscented toiletry items with you. 

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at