Coping with Side Effects

Man and woman smiling togetherIt is very common to experience side effects during and after cancer treatment. Asking for help managing your side effects does not make you a weak person. Now, more than ever there are medications and techniques that can help you manage the discomfort. Your health care team can help you manage these side effects, but you need to let them know what you are experiencing right away. Keeping track of your symptoms and side effects can help you communicate more clearly with your health care team so they can provide you with the best symptom management care. Below are some common side effects you might experience.

 Side Effect Strategies for Coping
 Fatigue
  • Lingering feeling of tiredness
  • Most common symptom
  • Some medications
  • Plenty of rest, with short naps
  • Light to moderate physical activity
  • Ask others to help with tasks
  • Good nutrition
 Shortness of Breath
  • Call your doctor right away if you have tightness in your chest, pain, fever or trouble breathing
  • Can be caused by the cancer, infection or treatment
  • Call your doctor!
  • Follow instructions for taking your medication
  • Use a fan or keep your room cooler
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Practice breathing techniques
 Skin Reactions
  • Might include rash, dryness, scaling, pain, redness and peeling
  • Use gentle skin care products that contain lanolin or aloe
  • Do not use any skin products immediately before radiation treatment
  • Protect yourself from the sun
  • Call your doctor if you have a rash or anything else that concerns you
 Throat and Mouth Soreness
  • Might include difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and mouth sores
  • Eat soft, moist foods
  • Avoid spicy, greasy and sharp foods
  • Suck on hard candy or popsicles
  • Ask your doctor about sucking on ice chips before and after chemo
  • Gargle with one teaspoon of table salt or baking soda dissolved in one cup of warm water to clean your mouth
 Infection and Bleeding
  • Treatment can make you more prone to infections and bleeding
  • Call your doctor immediately if you suspect an infection or you can’t stop bleeding
  • Wash your hands well!
  • Avoid crowds or people that are sick
  • Keep your mouth very clean (gargle with baking soda and warm water)
  • Avoid flowers and plants (because they may carry mold) or handling animal waste (like cleaning litter boxes)
  • Use a soft toothbrush
  • Use an electric shaver instead of a razor

 Gastrointestinal issues
  • Might include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation
  • Learn more about what to eat in the nutrition section

Loss of appetite
  • Eat several small meals if you aren’t hungry for big meals
  • Add olive oil, milk or yogurt to increase calories and protein in a meal
  • Take a walk before you eat
Nausea or Vomiting:
  • Some medications
  • Bland foods
  • Peppermint tea, ginger tea or ginger ale
Diarrhea:
  • Avoid high fiber foods that are hard to digest (like beans or raw vegetables)
  • Bland foods
  • Small meals, with plenty of water between meals
Constipation:
  • Drink plenty of non-caffeinated fluids
  • Eat high fiber foods
  • Exercise
 Hair Loss
  • Common after radiation and some chemotherapy
  • Use mild shampoos, soft hairbrushes and low heat on your hair
  • Buy a wig (sometimes called a scalp prosthesis and covered under some insurance policies)
  • Sometimes cutting your hair short or buzzing it off is easier to deal with than watching your hair fall out
  • Wear a hat or scarf
 Nervous System Changes
  • Some chemotherapy drugs can cause pain, tingling, burning, weakness or numbness in the hands and feet (called peripheral neuropathy).
  • Some people experience what many survivors call “chemobrain” which includes forgetfulness, lack of concentration, difficulty finding the right word and difficulty multitasking.
  • Be careful grabbing sharp or hot objects
  • Use handrails
  • Wear shoes with rubber soles and remove throw rugs to prevent falls
  • Get gentle massage
  • Take notes during appointments (or have a support person with you)
  • Do brain puzzles
  • Make lists
 Anxiety or Depression
  • Ongoing sad mood for most of the day
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the time
  • Uncontrolled worry
  • Trouble solving problems and focusing thoughts
  • Irritability (grouchy or short-tempered)
  • Call your doctor immediately if you have thoughts of suicide
  • Try exercising
  • Speak with a mental health professional like a social worker or psychologist. Some specialize in treating people with cancer.
  • Spend time with family and friends
  • Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises
  • Use prayer or other types of spiritual support if it helps

When should I call my doctor?

You should talk to your doctor about any and all symptoms and side effects you experience. If you have any of the following, call your doctor right away!

  • Black or bloody bowel movements
  • Bleeding from your nose or gums
  • Blurred vision
  • Bruising without injury
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Chills
  • Confusion
  • Constipation that lasts more than three days
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than one day
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Intense fatigue
  • Numbness
  • Pain while urinating
  • Pain, redness, swelling or pus at the surgical site
  • Pink or red urine
  • Pounding or rapidly beating heart
  • Progressive weakness
  • Rash
  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe depression or anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Tingling
  • Worsened skin reaction

Mature female doctor speaking on telephone

Early detection of lung cancer can increase survival rates. Call the Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA or talk to your doctor about lung cancer screening.