Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood cells. It develops from cells that help your body fight infections. Chemotherapy and other medications can treat this cancer, but these drugs can cause some unpleasant side effects.

Read on to learn what to expect during your AML treatment and how to manage side effects.

AML side effects

Doctors treat AML with chemotherapy drugs that kill cancer cells all over your body. If you have the FLT3 gene, you may also receive the targeted drug midostaurin (Rydapt).

In addition to killing cancer cells, chemotherapy drugs kill other quickly dividing cells in your hair, immune system, and other parts of your body. Damage to healthy cells can lead to side effects such as:

  • hair loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • appetite loss
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • mouth sores
  • increased risk for infection
  • bruising or bleeding
  • shortness of breath
  • tiredness

Midostaurin can cause side effects such as:

  • increased risk for infections
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fever
  • mouth sores
  • headaches
  • muscle or bone pain
  • bruising or bleeding

Your doctor will carefully monitor you for these and other side effects. You can take medications to help manage any symptoms you experience. These medications can help:

  • stop nausea and vomiting
  • relieve pain
  • increase your white blood cell count, so you don’t get an infection
  • prevent bleeding
  • treat shortness of breath and fatigue from anemia

Here are six other things you can do to help yourself feel better during treatment.

1. Protect yourself against infections

Chemotherapy and other drugs you take to treat AML can lower your white blood cell count. White blood cells are how your body fights infections. A lower white blood cell count can increase your risk of infection.

To avoid getting sick, wash your hands often during the day and carry hand sanitizer with you when you’re on the go. Avoid large crowds of people, or anyone who you know has an infection.

You may need to avoid uncooked fruits and vegetables if your white blood cell count is very low. Ask your doctor which foods are safe for you to eat, and which ones are off limits until you’ve finished treatment.

2. Get lots of rest

Both your cancer and its treatments can wear you out. Take breaks during the day to rest or nap. Don’t nap for longer than 30 minutes or too close to bedtime. Doing so could prevent you from sleeping well at night.

Go to bed at the same time each night to get your body into a sleep routine. Do something relaxing before bed to wind down. Take a warm bath, read a book, or meditate.

Also, ask friends and family for help with everyday tasks like housekeeping and cooking. There’s no shame in leaning on others when you have too much on your plate.

3. Try complementary therapies

The medications your doctor prescribes are designed to stop your cancer. Non-drug treatments like these can also help you feel better while you’re going through treatment:

  • relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation
  • acupuncture and acupressure
  • yoga
  • guided imagery
  • massage and reflexology

4. Adjust your diet

Nausea from chemotherapy and appetite loss can prevent you from eating regular meals. Poor eating puts you at risk for nutritional deficiencies. But it’s important to keep up your strength.

To ensure you get enough vitamins, minerals, and protein, eat smaller meals throughout the day. Eat your food cold if the smell of cooking bothers you. Drink ginger ale and eat dry toast or crackers to calm an upset stomach.

A cancer dietitian can evaluate your diet to make sure you’re getting the right mix of nutrients and calories. They can also provide solutions to treatment-related side effects like changes in taste and appetite loss.

5. Exercise

One of the best ways to relieve fatigue is with exercise. You may not be able to do much at first. Start slowly and increase your activity level gradually as you feel up to it.

If you can walk for just a few minutes each day, you’ll have more energy, and you may sleep better, too. Exercise is also good for improving your mood.

6. Care for your emotions

It’s normal to feel sad, frightened, or anxious when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Dealing with your AML treatment and managing side effects can seem overwhelming.

If your cancer becomes too much for you to handle on your own, lean on others. Talk to friends and family. Ask your medical team for advice. See a therapist. Or join a support group for people with AML through your local hospital or an organization like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Carve out time to be you again. Do something you love, whether it’s going to a movie with friends or taking a yoga class. Spend time in places other than your house and the doctor’s office.

Takeaway

Your doctor will treat AML with chemotherapy and other medications. These drugs can slow your cancer and improve your outlook, but they do come with side effects.

Take care of yourself throughout your treatment. Rest, relax, and set aside time to do things you enjoy. Self-care is important for helping you cope with the effects of AML on your life.