Tips for Handling Chemo Side Effects

Don’t let chemotherapy stop you from living your life. Our experts have developed solutions to help you deal with your chemo side effects.

In general, chemotherapy drugs cause side effects because they're designed to kill all rapidly dividing cells, which includes healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Luckily, most people are able to lead fairly active lives while undergoing cancer therapy.

It is important that you know how to treat these side effects as they occur. Here is a list of the most common ones and what you can do to take care of yourself:

  • Diarrhea and constipation. Avoid caffeine-containing beverages, high-fiber foods and milk products. Check with your doctor about replacing lost potassium with foods such as bananas. For constipation, get some exercise and drink fluids. Don't take a laxative or stool softener without your doctor's okay.
  • Fatigue. Take breaks or naps and let others help. Relaxation techniques reduce stress. If your doctor approves, gentle exercise (like walking) has been shown to be energizing and beneficial.
  • Fuzzy thinking. Try to keep your perspective and sense of humor. If depression develops, talk with your doctor.
  • Hair loss. If your hair comes out, protect your head with sunscreen, or a hat, scarf or wig. Several organizations help women obtain wigs; some insurance companies cover the cost if you have a doctor's prescription for a "skull prosthesis."
  • Hormonal issues. Dressing in cotton clothing and removable layers is useful for hot flashes. A vaginal lubricant or cream (but not petroleum jelly) may help with vaginal dryness. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms become difficult to live with.
  • Mouth sores. Ask your doctor about ointments or artificial saliva. Brush gently, and use a medicated, non-alcohol mouthwash. Concentrate on soft foods, and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Nausea and vomiting. Anti-vomiting and anti-nausea drugs help almost everyone. Ask if you can take them preventively. Smaller meals, liquids before (not with) food and avoiding strong smells will help, too. Breathing deeply also can reduce nausea.
  • Nerve damage. Be sure to tell your doctor about your symptoms; you may need a different drug or a treatment break.

Going through chemotherapy treatment should not mean the end of your active life. Talk to your doctor about your side effects and keep a copy of the above tips handy so you can continue to live your life to the fullest.

Published October 2011

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