Cancer Care

Strategies for Easing the Side Effects of Chemotherapy

It's the side effects of chemotherapy that make the treatment so intense. If you're about to undergo chemo, you know they're coming, but you can't be sure which will be most prevalent because each person experiences the treatment differently. There will be uncomfortable, difficult times, but take solace in the fact that these effects are all well documented. Most importantly, there are methods for easing each of them.

The best way to battle the effects of chemotherapy is to stay in touch with your medical team. They need to be aware of each issue, along with its intensity and frequency, to best help you overcome it. Let's go through each effect one by one to help you know exactly what to expect and how to deal.

Fatigue

Because issues with fatigue are very common during chemotherapy treatment, it helps to have a strategy for getting through your day. Make a list of things that other people can help with, such as cooking, vacuuming, child care, or grocery shopping, and have that list ready if someone asks if there is anything they can do for you.

Getting enough rest is an important step in dealing with fatigue, so allow time during the day for breaks. Make sure you are eating well and staying hydrated, and try to get some exercise. A walk outside in the fresh air might be just the rejuvenation you need. A regular exercise program may help reduce fatigue, but discuss it with your doctor first.

Nausea

Some kinds of chemotherapy cause nausea, but it's not as prevalent an issue as it was in past years. Treatment protocols have improved to address much of the nausea caused by cancer treatment, and an anti-nausea medication will often be preemptively delivered along with your chemotherapy. Keep in mind that your doctor needs to know about any nausea you're experiencing.

Other steps that may help reduce nausea and vomiting include:

  • Eating frequent small meals.
  • Eating slowly.
  • Chewing your food very well.
  • Avoiding fatty foods and big meals.
  • Eating cold foods
  • Sucking on ice cubes.
  • Drinking cool, clear liquids.

Digestive Issues

People undergoing chemotherapy treatment frequently experience both diarrhea and constipation, sometimes even going back and forth between the two. No matter which digestive issue you're facing, it's important to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water, and follow the nausea-beating tips above.

In addition, if you have diarrhea, avoid caffeine, milk products, sweets, greasy foods, and high-fiber foods. If you have constipation, try to get more exercise. High-fiber foods may help, too, unless your doctor has advised against them. In either case, discuss your digestive issues with your doctor. A change in medication may help alleviate the problem, and your doctor may have other suggestions to ease your discomfort.

Mouth Sores

The delicate skin lining the mouth can sometimes develop sores as a result of chemotherapy. Good oral hygiene is important during treatment, because you are more likely to experience cavities and other oral issues. If you start to develop sores, do not use a mouthwash that contains alcohol; instead, ask your doctor for an alternative mouthwash recommendation.

Hair, Nail, and Skin Issues

You may lose your hair during chemotherapy. This can be emotionally distressing, so decide before you begin treatment whether you want to wear a wig. The American Cancer Society's "TLC" publication can help with this. In addition, avoid perms and color treatments, and consider cutting your hair short.

Also, your nails might become brittle, and your skin may dry out or become more sensitive and susceptible to sunburn. Be sure to cover up and use sunscreen when outdoors, particularly on your scalp. Moisturize often, watch for broken skin, and let your doctor know if any area is painful or looks like it might become infected. Call your doctor immediately if a rash or itching develops, because this may be a sign of an allergic reaction.

Talk to Your Doctor

Call your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Fever of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or greater.
  • Chills.
  • Allergic reaction, such as a rash, throat or mouth swelling, or trouble swallowing.
  • Unexplained bruising or bleeding.
  • Unusual pain or extreme headaches.
  • Pain or soreness at the chemo injection site.
  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath.
  • Long-lasting diarrhea or vomiting.
  • Blood in stool or urine.

Above all else, maintain good communication with your medical team while you are going through treatment. This flow of information will help your physician course-correct to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy that affect you the most. The goal is to help you stay active and comfortable throughout your course of treatment, so don't lose heart when you're overwhelmed by these effects — your team is there to make things as easy as possible.

Posted in Cancer Care

Judy Schwartz Haley is a freelance writer and blogger. She grew up in Alaska and now makes her home in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. Judy battled breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, and now she devotes much of her free time to volunteering as a state leader with the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.