A Pill Swallowing Guide - Based on My Own Experience
One pill. Two pills. Red pill. Blue pill.
For many that are fighting diseases, the road to recovery is lined with pills. Cancer recovery is no different. Of course, we’ll have chemotherapy, radiotherapy, transplants, surgeries and more, but at every step of the way, a plethora of pills dictate your journey.
There are pills to treat every part of cancer. Firstly, there are the pills that you need to fight the disease itself. Then, there are the pills that help treat the symptoms of the disease. And then there are the pills to treat the side effects from the medication.
I was on a clinical trial with a very strict regimen. So, at any one time, I would have up to 6 different drugs that I needed to take. Each one would have varying dosages that needed to be taken on specific days and at specific times.
On any given day, I would take around 3 - 6 pills with each meal. However, each medication had its own set of specific instructions on when I needed to take it and how often. They could follow any of these dosage times:
- Morning, 5 times a week
- Afternoon, 5 times a week
- Dinner, 5 times a week
- One every 4 hours
- One every 6 hours
- On the weekend, take 1&½
- One 7 times a week
To make things more complicated, I would have my blood cell counts constantly monitored. Since these drugs have strong side effects, they frequently affected my body with adverse reactions. If my white blood cell counts fell too low, I would be taken off a cycle to give my body time to heal. So, the drugs that I needed to take could completely change from one day to another.
As you can imagine, it quickly became a challenge to manage. But if keeping track of the schedule wasn’t tough enough, the greatest difficulty for me was actually swallowing them. First, there was the size. Some of these pills were abhorrently large, especially for a child. Then there was the taste. Many of them tasted terrible. The extreme bitterness would immediately make me gag. Compounding this, I had to receive intravenous drugs as well. Whenever I was hooked up to a line, it made my entire mouth taste of the medicine. I still remember the strong metallic taste. With this flavor lingering in my mouth for entire days, it made taking those bitter pills that much harder since the flavors of both would mix on my tongue.
But there were also psychological issues with each swallow. It is so easy to develop a mental barrier to the pills. These are strong chemicals that you are putting into your body and there is bound to be a reaction. Even if you want to take them, your body can take steps to prevent you from doing so. Anything from developing a gag reflex to becoming nauseous once you’ve swallowed them. For me, it only took one adverse reaction (usually throwing up) to make that pill much more difficult to swallow.
Because of this, I had to change the way that I was taking the pills. Before cancer, I took pills like everyone else does - poppin’ them in, then taking a swig of water to get them down. But during treatment, I had get much more creative to take them. So, I tried many tricks to swallow them. Some worked well and others…. not so much. Here are some of those highlights and hopefully one of these will do the trick for you. As always, review any change with your doctor before trying any of these out!
How To Swallow Pills
- Water first, then then pill
This is one of the simplest tricks, but so many people forget about it. Once that pill touches your tongue, you will taste it. So instead, try drinking some water so your mouth is full. Then tilt your head back and drop the pill in your mouth. Before it starts to dissolve in the water, swallow everything in your mouth. This way, you avoid even giving that pill the chance to touch your tongue.
- Cut em down!
Who knows what those pharmaceutical companies are thinking when they make these giant and impossible to swallow pills. No one likes that feeling of a large pill getting caught halfway down. Therefore, for those ridiculously big or awkwardly shaped pills, I always found it super helpful to break them into halves or quarters.
Before doing anything, just check that your pill can be cut in half since not all of them can be split (like capsules or coated pills). Next, I’d recommend using a pill cutter. I got mine from my hospital for free, so definitely check if yours offers anything for patients. Then break them down to whatever size is most comfortable for you. Just be sure to keep track of the dosages and don’t mix up different days.
- Crushing it into a powder and putting it into a liquid
If the pills tasted too strong, were too big, or too numerous, I started crushing them up and mixing it up into a strong-tasting juice. Cranberry worked best for me.
But I’d advise some caution on this route. The flavor of some pills can still cut through the juice. One day, all I could taste in this drug-laden cocktail was one of the pills I found exceptionally foul. This taste, combined with some diluted grape juice concentrate, ended with me throwing up everything into the toilet bowl. That was the end of this little trick of mine.
- Making it into jello
Personally, I love jello. Hence, I hoped my love for the jiggly would help overcome my disdain for some of these pills. I would make some jello normally, and while it was halfway solidified, I added the pills in. From there, I let it solidify through the night so they would be suspended in the middle. But for me, it only took the taste of one bad pill to make this route too risky and time consuming. This method may also work with other food like mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, or some other food that you enjoy. Just make sure that the pill can easily incorporate without dissolving and the food is strong enough to mask the taste.
- Stuffing it into candy
The only thing I loved more than jello was candy. I had a special thing for sour candy and this was the trick that helped me take most of my harsher tasting pills. I would grab a bunch of my favorite candy and stuff pills into each one. I loved sour punch straws, so I would break the pills and insert the fragments into the candy. The overtly sour flavor easily hid the bitterness of the pills. I found sweeter candy to work really well too, like taffy.
- Chasing it with food
For the braver at heart, one thing to try is taking your medicine with some food. Gobbling down some food and drinks after taking the pill might just be enough to keep it down. I tried this with soup, mac’n’cheese, cereal, and pancakes. Some foods worked better than others.
Taking Pills and Making Yourself Stronger Along the Way
No matter what method you choose to help swallow your medicine, the important thing is that you remember to congratulate yourself. It’s not easy to have all these chemicals running through your body. Recovery is a long and hard process. I’ve definitely broken down and cried about taking my pills. But at the end of the day, I refused to give up.
These were the various methods I came up with through trial and error so hopefully it will help those of you struggling to get your meds down. Nowadays, I’ve gotten so used to taking pills that I easily swallow them without any food or water. It’s proof that you can become stronger and overcome the obstacles you have to face as a cancer patient. If you have any other methods to take your meds, I’d love to hear it and hopefully someone can benefit from your suggestion.
OURA was born from our experiences with cancer. To learn more about our story, click here: https://ouragami.org/pages/about