Coping with the side-effects of cancer treatment

Oncology Case Management Nurse at Bupa UK
01 March 2017

If you or someone you love needs cancer treatment then it’s natural to be concerned about possible side-effects. These happen when the cancer treatment affects healthy tissues, as well as treating the cancer.

Before you start your treatment, your doctor or nurse will talk to you about side-effects. Not everyone gets them but if you do, there are lots of ways that you and your medical team can help lessen their effect.

Although cancer treatments can cause many different side-effects, here we focus on three that often cause concern: fatigue (tiredness), nausea (sickness) and hair loss.

An image showing a woman who has lost her hair

Fatigue

Fatigue – tiredness and lack of energy – is the most common side-effect of cancer treatment. Some people say this is the side-effect that most disrupts their lives. You may feel extremely tired and weak, struggle to do your daily tasks and lose interest in the things you usually enjoy. And resting doesn’t always help.

Unfortunately, fatigue can go on for a long time after your treatment ends. But although it can be much longer, most people get their energy back within six months to a year. In the meantime, there are some things you can do to help yourself cope.

  • Accept help and support from friends and family – don’t try to do everything yourself.
  • Rest when you need to, but try to keep daytime naps short so that you sleep at night.
  • Do some gentle exercise each day.
  • Do the tasks that are important to you first – don’t waste energy on unimportant things.
  • Eat a well balanced diet to help you keep your energy up.

Nausea (feeling sick)

Some cancer medicines, such as chemotherapy, can make people feel sick. These days, sickness can often be well controlled with medicines your doctor prescribes. It’s best to take these medicines regularly, whether you feel sick or not so that they can prevent it starting.

There’s a lot you can do yourself to help reduce any sickness.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Avoid certain foods – fatty foods or those with a strong smell.
  • Eat several small meals and snacks spaced out during the day.
  • Taking some ginger may help – for instance ginger tea.
  • Relaxation techniques help some people.

If you have sickness and it isn’t under control, tell your doctor or nurse so that they can do their best to help.

Hair loss

Losing your hair is a well-known side-effect of some cancer treatments. Your hair may become thinner or you may lose it completely.

If your hair becomes thin, treat it gently. Use a soft hairbrush and wash with a mild shampoo. Avoid hair driers and heated tongs or straighteners, and don’t use perms or hair colours.

If you lose your hair completely, it’s your choice whether to cover your head. Some people choose to wear a headscarf, or a wig. Some people prefer to go bareheaded. Do what makes you feel most comfortable.

It’s natural to find hair loss upsetting and even embarrassing. Talking to others or reading about others’ experiences might help – see our section below. It can also help to know that your hair will grow back after your treatment finishes.

Getting help and support

There’s lots of information about how to cope with these and other side-effects from organisations such as Cancer Research UK and Macmillan. You may also find it helpful to join an online forum or a local support group to find out how others have coped.

It’s important to let your healthcare team know about any side-effects or changes you notice as you go through your treatment. That way, they’ll be able to offer you help as you need it, perhaps through the care of an Oncology Support Team (OST) nurse.

Remember, most side-effects don’t do lasting harm and will go away after you finish your treatment.

You can read more about cancer on Bupa’s Health Information cancer page, which features free expert advice on a range of topics, including adjusting to life after treatment, tips on coping at home and returning to work after cancer.

Louise Spence
Oncology Case Management Nurse at Bupa UK

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