Why It’s Important to Stick to Your Medication Regimen

Hand holding two pick pills

Sometimes cancer treatment makes it tough to do anything – and that includes taking medication. But sticking to your medication regimen is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that treatment is effective, protect your long-term health, and even minimize certain side effects. Here’s what you should know about keeping up with your medications.

Adherence Makes a Difference

When your doctor prescribes a medication, they’ll give you clear instructions on how to use it. You should know what time to take the medicine (e.g. first thing in the morning), how to take it (e.g. with a meal or on an empty stomach), how to prepare it, and so on. When you follow these instructions, doctors say you’re “adhering” to their guidance. And when it comes to your health, adherence is a key part of your clinical outcomes.

For instance, breast cancer research has found that people with consistent adherence have lower rates of cancer recurrence, metastasis, and death. Another study of people with leukemia found that poor adherence is linked to worse disease outcomes, worse responses to treatment, and higher mortality rates. In fact, the FDA estimates that 125,000 deaths per year in the US are due to medication adherence problems.

Also importantly, medications have higher efficacy when taken at regular intervals. For instance, supportive medications that are prescribed during chemotherapy should be taken on a strict schedule to keep nausea at bay. It is always more effective to stay on top of your nausea medications than to try to play catch up once you are already nauseous.

Why Adherence Can Be Tricky

These statistics may not be too surprising. After all, medications are only effective if taken appropriately. But as many people learn, cancer treatment can make it tough to stick to your regimen for several reasons. 

First, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of medications you’re taking. The average person being treated for cancer is prescribed six different medications. If you have complex health issues, that number could easily double. In this whirlwind of meds—each with their own schedule and instructions—it’s easy to slip up and miss a dose.

Second, you might feel too tired to take your medication. One of the most common symptoms reported during cancer treatment is fatigue. Maybe you end up falling asleep at night (or during the day) having missed a dose. Or maybe you’re your exhaustion prevents you from getting to the pharmacy to refill your prescriptions.

And third, you might be trying to keep costs down by rationing your medication. Cancer drugs can be outrageously expensive, adding to the emotional burden of illness. (Experts call this “financial toxicity.”) Research has found that one in three people living with cancer on Medicare sometimes delays refilling their medication to try to control costs. Medication assistance programs are here to help. If you have trouble affording medications that aren’t listed in our Financial Assistance for Medications guide, talk to your Care Coach—they can work with you to look for another program that might work for you.

The bottom line is this: If you’re having trouble sticking to your medication regimen, it’s not your fault and you’re not alone. Some research has shown that adherence rates among people taking oral chemotherapy for cancer are as low as 16 percent. This is a system-wide problem, and healthcare researchers are working to find new solutions to help patients stay on track.

Tips for Keeping Up With Your Meds

If you’re reading this article, you’ve already taken a big step toward strengthening your medication regimen. Here are some other tips we find effective:

  1. Get a pill organizer. A pillbox can be incredibly helpful for keeping you on track. They are inexpensive and come in many clever and colorful varieties. Just drop in your medication once a week and forget about it.
  2. Use a medication tracker. A medication tracker is a phone app that reminds you to take your meds and lets you log when you do. It’s simple and highly effective. Use our app or one of the countless alternatives available online.
  3. Tie it to your daily routine. An easy way to make medication a part of your daily routine is to link it with something you’d never forget – like brushing your teeth at night or eating breakfast in the morning. 
  4. Keep it accessible. If your meds are slipping your mind, try keeping them somewhere more visible. When you see your medication on the kitchen counter first thing every morning, it can be easier to remember them.
  5. Try a timer cap. These special electronic caps fit on your medicine bottles and keep track of when the bottle was last opened. That means you’ll never be stuck wondering whether you took your last dose. Some timer caps also come with reminder alarms.
  6. Ask loved ones for help. People who love you have probably offered to help – and now is a time to let them. Ask a friend or family member to help you refill your meds, set up a pill organizer, or shoot you text messages to keep you on track.
  7. Choose one pharmacy. Juggling multiple pharmacies can make your regimen even trickier. Pick one location that you like and (if possible) try to establish a relationship with your pharmacist. 

Final thoughts

Keeping track of all your medications and sticking to a medication regimen can be daunting and can make the cancer experience that much harder. But it’s incredibly important for your health – and it’s within your control. Try our tips for keeping up with your meds, and don’t be afraid to let your loved ones and your care team (including your Care Coaches) know if you’re struggling.

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 [email protected].