7 Ways to Cope With Chemo

By Claudia M. Caruana

Every person experiences chemotherapy differently, both physically and emotionally. But some universal coping tips can be applied to help you through even the darkest days.

1. Nip nerve pain in the bud
Between 30% and 40% of chemo patients develop peripheral neuropathy, or damage to nerves in the arms and legs, which can cause pain, burning, tingling, numbness, balance problems and muscle weakness.

If you develop neuropathy, tell your doctor right away. The doctor may adjust the timing or dosing of your medication regimen to see whether that helps. Other options include anticonvulsant or antidepressant medications, both of which can help ease chronic pain; numbing creams, gels or patches; and steroids.

2. Find a new look
You might not lose your hair, but if you do, it will usually happen within the first three weeks of treatment. Some people find that shaving off their hair helps them take control. "I wore a wig for a little while, but it was hot and itchy," says Mara Langer, a breast cancer survivor from San Mateo, CA. "I switched to scarves and baseball hats." The good news: Your hair will grow back, perhaps even fuller than before.

3. Focus on fluids
have  much of an appetite, but try to increase the fiber in your diet if you're constipated. Eating fruits, veggies and whole grains can relieve symptoms. Also, ask your doctor about using a stool softener or mild laxative. If you're suffering from diarrhea, eat small meals, and avoid caffeine, milk products and high-fiber foods. Ask your doctor about taking an antidiarrheal medication.

4. Attack anemia
During chemo, your red blood cell count may slip, and that can cause anemia. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, dizziness and shortness of breath. Alert your doctor if you experience symptoms of anemia. Treatment will restore your energy and help you feel better.

5. Boost your energy
You might feel fatigued during treatment, but you don't have to give in to it. "When I got chemo, I forced myself to walk between naps," says Geni W. of Eugene, OR, who had colon cancer. "The exercise helped increase my energy tremendously." Also, give yourself permission not to be productive all the time. "I look for less taxing but enjoyable activities, such as reading and sewing," says Janet D., a breast cancer survivor from Sachse, TX, who also works out at least 30 minutes a day. "Doing light aerobics, yoga or balance exercises boosts my mood and my energy level." If you're not sure what exercises are right for you during chemotherapy, consider getting a trainer.

6. Stop stomach upset
During chemo treatments, or possibly even the day before, you may need to take an antinausea medication; it can minimize or even prevent queasiness. Snack frequently to avoid an empty stomach, which can lead to nausea and vomiting. Try eating slices of your favorite cheese; a piece of protein-packed beef jerky; or a smoothie with fruit, whole milk, nuts and flaxseeds.

For on-the-go relief, take a tip from Langer and keep ginger chews or capsules in your purse. In a recent study funded by the National Cancer Institute, people receiving chemo who took three capsules of ginger twice a day had half the nausea of people who were given placebos (sugar pills). The most effective doses were 1 gram and 0.5 grams per day, which is equivalent to one-half teaspoon or one-quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, respectively.

7. Cut through brain fog
If you suffer from chemo brain—the mental fogginess that can accompany treatment—prioritizing and organizing will be more important than ever. Just choose the methods that suit you best. "I have trouble remembering appointments, so I'm diligent about writing down all my commitments on a large calendar that I consult daily," says Janet D., who had to cancel her credit cards because she misplaced them. "I also designated a drawer in the master bedroom as the place to keep important things."

Published December 2011

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