The side effects of chemotherapy depend on many factors. Some women may experience few side effects, while others may experience many. Your personal experience with chemotherapy and its side effects will be unique. It’s important to listen to your body. It’s also important to seek out ways to manage discomfort in a way that’s healthy for you.
What’s the best way to manage the side effects during chemotherapy?
Your side effects may depend on the treatment your doctor has prescribed. Some chemotherapy drugs are more likely to cause nausea and vomiting than others. Side effects may also depend on the dose of medications you receive. Women who receive radiation and chemotherapy are also more likely to experience nausea.
Some basic strategies to help with nausea and fatigue:
- Eat small, healthy meals including foods that you enjoy.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Take anti-emetic drugs 45 minutes before meals.
- Settle your stomach with ginger tea and saltine crackers.
- Make yourself comfortable, relax, and get plenty of rest.
Other methods such as exercise may bring relief. You might also consider acupuncture, hypnosis, or other alternative therapies to manage side effects or anxiety. Talk with your healthcare team about what to expect. They can help you plan for, or even prevent, side effects.
Keep a written record of how you feel. This record will make it easier to talk with your healthcare team about your side effects. The American Cancer Society offers resources to guide you through this process.
What can my doctor prescribe to help with common side effects of chemotherapy?
Not all women will have the same side effects, but medications are available to ease the most common symptoms.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy. You might feel nauseous right after treatment, or it may happen later. Fortunately, many drugs are available to treat nausea. These drugs, called anti-emetics, come as oral capsules and tablets, injections, or patches. Anti-emetic drugs are often prescribed in combinations of two or three.
Women undergoing chemotherapy may be more likely than men to feel nauseous. But women may also be more likely to find relief with anti-nausea treatments.
Young women are more likely to experience nausea with chemotherapy than older women. Women who experienced morning sickness during pregnancy or suffer from motion sickness may also be more susceptible..
Research has shown that taking anti-emetics 45 minutes before meals may be the best way to avoid nausea. Nausea and vomiting can be more difficult to control once symptoms start. Keeping nausea under control will help you feel better. It may also help you to avoid anxiety from the anticipation of nausea.
It’s normal for chemotherapy treatment to leave you fatigued. This fatigue usually resolves or improves after three to five days. Give yourself time to rest and recuperate after your treatments. If the fatigue continues, talk to your doctor to rule out other causes, such as anemia or depression.
Aches and Pains
According to the Mayo Clinic, one in three cancer patients will experience pain during treatment. Sometimes that pain may result from the cancer itself, especially if a tumor has spread. In other cases, chemotherapy may be a source of pain. There are many ways to manage pain, including over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Your doctor may also prescribe an opioid medication, such as codeine or oxycodone. If the pain is severe, you may need to try another drug.
Infection and Immunity
Doctors may give you a drug called filgrastim to help your body replace white blood cells. The loss of those cells can leave you more susceptible to infection. A study in BMC Health Services Research suggests that patients may benefit from a longer course of filgrastim.
Some women treated with chemotherapy may experience burning, tingling or painful sensations in their hands and feet. Those sensations may be caused by damage to the nerves.
Women experiencing these side effects may be treated with antiepileptic or antidepressant drugs. Clinical trial results in women with breast cancer suggest that a drug called dextromethorphan may also help. This drug is already used to treat nerve damage in patients with diabetes.
Are there any natural remedies that may help with my symptoms?
While over-the-counter and prescription medications may help with your side effects, natural remedies may also provide you with some relief.
Despite the availability of anti-nausea medication, many people continue to report nausea as a side effect of chemotherapy. A study in Supportive Care in Cancer suggests that ginger capsules taken with anti-emetic drugs may help to reduce nausea.
Some doctors use high-doses of intravenous vitamin C as an alternative treatment for the side effects of cancer and chemotherapy. It’s not clear how it works, but a recent review suggests vitamin C may aid with fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, and pain.
Marijuana, also known as cannabis, is illegal in the United States. But a number of states now allow use of the drug for medical conditions, including cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there isn’t enough evidence that smoking marijuana helps with the side effects of cancer treatment. The drug isn’t FDA-approved for this use. Two drugs that work in a similar way have been approved for use in treating nausea when other treatments fail. There’s also some evidence that a cannabis extract sprayed under the tongue may help with pain, sleep, and anxiety.
Words of Caution
The FDA doesn’t regulate over-the-counter vitamins and herbal supplements. This means they aren’t subject to the same standards of safety and effectiveness. Some research suggests that herbal supplements often may not be what they seem.
Many women with breast cancer do take supplements during their treatment. Studies suggest that herbal remedies may offer some people a sense of control. But some herbal supplements may be unsafe to use during cancer treatment. It’s also hard to get reliable information about herbal remedies..
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network says that vitamins and supplements may sometimes interfere with chemotherapy treatment. It’s always a good idea to inform your healthcare team of anything you’re taking or planning to start.
Can alternative therapies help with my side effects?
Besides medications and natural remedies, other alternative therapies are also available as possible treatments.
Acupuncture and Acupressure
A growing number of research studies consider complementary medicines for managing the side effects of chemotherapy. Small studies have shown acupuncture and acupressure to be effective in treating nausea.
Hypnosis may help relieve nausea associated with the anticipation of chemotherapy. The studies conducted so far have mostly included children. Researchers say more research on the subject and specific interventions are needed.
Complementary approaches to medicine may help improve your quality of life with cancer. A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that patients who practiced yogic breathing showed improvements in stress, sleep, anxiety, and mental quality of life. In another report, an eight-week yoga exercise program improved symptoms of fatigue in women with breast cancer.
Other interventions with yoga may help with the stress and anxiety before or during chemotherapy treatments. For example, a small study found that laughter yoga reduces stress in patients before chemotherapy treatment.
If you decide to try any of these complementary or alternative therapies, the NIH recommends discussing with your doctor before doing so.
What about exercise?
Exercising may be the last thing you want to do while undergoing chemotherapy, but it may help with fatigue, physical functioning, and emotional well-being.
Ask your doctor if there are rehabilitation programs available, such as aerobic or strength training. Other practices, including Pilates, Tai Chi, yoga, or dance, may also be recommended.
Can I take over-the counter medications?
Over-the-counter medications may help with some side effects of chemotherapy. Aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen may ease your aches and pains. The Mayo Clinic says that familiar medicines, like Immodium, Kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol, may also help with diarrhea.
It’s important to talk with your healthcare team about any symptoms you’re experiencing. The best way to manage them may depend on their severity and the underlying cause.
Always let your doctor know about any medications you’re taking. The American Cancer Society recommends keeping a list of the drugs you take along with the dose, frequency, and reason for taking them.
Where can I turn for spiritual support while undergoing treatment?
As you manage your health and the physical effects of cancer treatment, it’s important to consider your spiritual needs too.
Studies have found that breast cancer patients who find greater meaning and peace in their lives show fewer signs of depression. Those women also showed an increase in vitality over a 12-month period.
Religious or spiritual beliefs can also influence women in their decisions about cancer treatment.
Many cancer centers and hospitals offer chaplains for spiritual support, including prayer, worship services, and more. Cancer centers also offer a variety of social support groups.
How can chemotherapy side effects affect me if I am young?
Younger women undergoing chemotherapy may have different concerns than older women. For example, people under age 50 more often report nausea with chemotherapy. Younger women are also more likely to gain weight with chemotherapy treatment.
Considering Your Fertility
If you want to have children, you’ll need to consider the effects chemotherapy may have on your fertility. Chemotherapy can lead to premature ovarian failure and early menopause. These effects are a growing concern as more women are having children later in life.
Ask your healthcare team about methods to preserve your fertility. If you’re interested in fertility preservation, your doctor may also refer you to a reproductive specialist.
Women can have eggs or embryos harvested and frozen. After cancer treatment has ended, those preserved eggs or embryos may be used for in vitro fertilization. It may also be possible to preserve ovarian tissue or immature eggs. But these methods are considered experimental and are also time-consuming and expensive.
It may not be easy for you to consider a family when faced with cancer. But it’s best to discuss fertility before treatment starts. There are no guarantees, but talking with your doctor early may give you more options.
Pregnancy and Cancer
Some women who have received chemotherapy may get pregnant without fertility treatment. Women should use birth control to avoid a new pregnancy during or just after chemotherapy.
In very rare cases, a woman may be diagnosed with breast cancer during her pregnancy. Decisions about pregnancy and cancer treatments including chemotherapy must be carefully weighed. After the first trimester, it may be possible to maintain a healthy pregnancy while undergoing chemotherapy.
Sexual Side Effects
Some women undergoing chemotherapy may lose their desire for sex. You may also experience symptoms such as vaginal dryness that make sex more difficult. Those symptoms will usually subside over time.
How can chemotherapy affect me if I’m older?
Chemotherapy may not be recommended for some women over 70. Older women may be at lower risk for their cancer to recur. Studies show that older women more often discontinue chemotherapy treatment and thus may not benefit from treatment. Experts say more research is needed on the effects of chemotherapy on older women.
Do I really need chemotherapy?
Whether or not you need chemotherapy may depend on the chance that your cancer may recur. Your doctor may use a genomic test such as Oncotype Dx to help in those decisions.
Sometimes the side effects of chemotherapy can lead to anxiety or even delays in later treatments. Your doctor can help you find ways to help manage these concerns.
You always have a choice about the treatments you pursue. Your health care providers can help you understand your options as well as the benefits and potential risks of each treatment.