How to Cope With Common Cancer Treatment Side Effects
Side effects can be an uncomfortable part of treating cancer and can vary depending on the length and type of treatment you undergo. Rather than endure them on your own, you can talk to your doctor and your healthcare team about how to make you feel better during your treatment. There are other potential benefits, too. According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association,1 patients who reported their symptoms frequently (via an online tool) lived 5 months longer than those who waited until they had office visits to talk about their side effects. The earlier providers know about your side effects, the sooner they might be able to do something to alleviate them. Here are a few common side effects of cancer treatment, as well as some tips to help manage them:
1. Nausea and vomiting
Some chemotherapy drugs can cause nausea. You might also feel sick from other medications you’re taking, an infection, constipation, or anxiety.2
The American Cancer Society suggests notifying your cancer care team if you’ve been vomiting for 24 hours, can’t keep fluids down, and can’t take your medications. Your doctor can prescribe a medication to combat nausea and vomiting.
Other tactics include eating frequent, small meals; bland foods like crackers or dry toast; and a limited amount of fatty, fried, spicy, or very sweet fare. Sip cold, clear liquids and try hard candies with pleasant smells to cut back on unpleasant tastes. If you feel sick because you’re anxious about a treatment, try deep breathing, meditation, or visualization exercises to cope.
Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment.3 The cause of cancer-related fatigue is unknown, but it’s likely a result of the disease itself, treatments and their side effects.
Fatigue can take you by surprise and feel overwhelming, whether you’re relaxing or out and about. Symptoms can persist regardless of how much sleep you get.
To keep fatigue at bay, try to sleep 7 to 8 hours per night with short naps and rest breaks under 30 minutes each throughout your day.4 You may also want to avoid caffeine for the 8 hours prior to bedtime to assist with a full night of sleep.4
Prioritize your days by focusing on the tasks that are most important to you, and then spread those tasks out so you have time to rest and reenergize.4 Although you might not feel like eating, try to consume 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day to give your body the nutrients it needs to heal.4 Moderate aerobic exercise like walking can also help you keep up your energy levels.4
3. Hair loss
Since chemotherapy damages hair follicles, many patients will lose their hair during treatments. Although it’s upsetting for both men and women, it can be particularly tough on women. In fact, 46.6% of women say hair loss is the most traumatic part of chemotherapy.5
The good news is that hair loss is temporary. In the meantime, you might choose to shave your head or wear a scarf. If you decide to purchase a wig, do so when you still have hair so you can match your hair color and texture. In addition, the Paxman scalp cooler -- a cap designed to help prevent hair loss during treatment -- is showing promise. In a clinical trial, women who used the cooling cap during 4 rounds of chemotherapy were significantly more likely to lose 50% less hair than women who did not use the cap.6
Diarrhea is an unpleasant but common side effect in people receiving treatment for cancer. Diarrhea may also be caused by cancer itself.7 It’s important to talk to your doctor about diarrhea if you have:
- Six or more loose bowel movements a day for more than 2 days
- Blood in your stool or rectal area
- Weight loss due to diarrhea
- A fever of 100.5°F or higher
- The inability to control bowel movements
- Diarrhea or abdominal cramps that last more than a day
- Diarrhea accompanied by dizziness7
You can drink clear liquids, eat low-fiber foods, eat 5 to 6 small meals a day, avoid foods that irritate your digestive tract, and try probiotics when you first notice diarrhea.7 You can also ask a healthcare provider about medication that can stop diarrhea.
5. Low libido
The most common sexual change for cancer patients is an overall loss of desire. For men, erection problems are also a common problem. For women, vaginal dryness and pain with sexual activity are frequent.8
When sexual changes do occur, they typically do not improve right away. Finding the most helpful remedy may take time and patience because sexual changes can be caused by both psychological and physical factors. If problems occur, discuss them with your healthcare team and find out how to get help.8
By being open with your cancer care team about the side effects you're experiencing, you can relieve some of your physical and emotional frustration during the course of treatment.
Understanding nausea and vomiting. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/nausea-and-vomiting/what-is-it.html. Accessed January 22, 2018.
What is cancer-related fatigue? American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/fatigue/what-is-cancer-related-fatigue.html. Accessed January 22, 2018.
Managing cancer-related fatigue. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/fatigue/managing-cancer-related-fatigue.html. Accessed April 25, 2018.
Münstedt K, Manthey N, Sachsse S, Vahrson H. Changes in self-concept and body image during alopecia induced cancer chemotherapy. Support Care Cancer. 1997;5(2):139-43.
Nangia J, Wang T, Osborne C, et al. Effect of a scalp cooling device on alopecia in women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer: the SCALP randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2017;317(6):596–605. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.20939.
Diarrhea: cancer-related causes and how to cope. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/in-depth/diarrhea/art-20044799. Accessed May 24, 2018.
Chemo side effects: sexuality and cancer. MD Anderson Cancer Center. https://www.mdanderson.org/patients-family/diagnosis-treatment/emotional-physical-effects/sexuality-cancer.html. Accessed May 24, 2018.
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