8 Ways to Cope With Chemo

By Claudia M. Caruana
Reviewed by Health Monitor Advisory Board

Chemotherapy is a powerful, lifesaving treatment—but it can cause side effects. Fortunately, you can minimize these issues and help ease your discomfort. These strategies courtesy of the people experiencing them will help you deal with these issues.

Stop stomach upset
The emptier your stomach, the more likely you are to feel nauseated. So if you can’t eat a big meal, try frequent snacks—bits of cheese, a piece of protein-packed beef jerky, or a smoothie with fruit, whole milk, nuts and flaxseed. But if queasiness persists, ask your doctor about prescription antinausea medications, which can minimize or even help you avoid the problem altogether.

Focus on fluids
Drinking lots of water can help you overcome constipation or diarrhea, which can strike during chemo. You may not have much of an appetite, but try to increase the fiber in your diet if you’re constipated. Eating whole-grain bread and cereal, as well as fruits and veggies, 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, high-fiber foods and milk products. Ask your doctor about taking an antidiarrheal medication.

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 J. White of Eugene, OR, who had colon cancer. “The exercise helped increase my energy tremendously.” Also, give yourself permission to not be productive all the time. “I look for less taxing but enjoyable activities, such as reading and sewing,” says Janet Doleh, a breast cancer survivor in Sachse, TX. Janet also works out at least 30 minutes a day. “Doing light aerobics, yoga or balance exercises boosts my mood and energy level.”

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 their head helps them take control. “I wore a wig for a little while, but it was hot and itchy,” says Mara. “In the summer, I wore a lot of scarves and baseball hats.” The good news: Your hair will grow back, perhaps even fuller than before.

Cut through your brain fog
If you suffer from chemo brain—the mental fogginess that can accompany the treatment—prioritizing, routines 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, 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. I remind my friends that I have chemo brain when it’s obvious that I’m not thinking as clearly as I normally do. They’re all understanding.”

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. Mara was given shots of a medication that boosts your body’s production of red blood cells. Alert your doctor if you experience symptoms of anemia. Treatment will restore your energy level. 

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. You may not even realize you have it at first. Says Chicago-based Marilyn Wells, who was receiving chemo for multiple myeloma, “I started feeling tingling and numbness in my legs and feet in January, but I didn’t mention it to my oncologist until May that year. I didn’t think it had anything to do with my chemo; no one told me it was a possible side effect.”

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

Published March 2014

  Side Effects

Common Chemo Side Effects
Handling Chemotherapy Side Effects
Help for Lesser-Known Side Effects of Chemo
10 Easy Ways to Stay Well During Chemo
15 Ways to Protect Against Infection
Prevent Chemo-Related Infections at Home
Do's and Don'ts to Avoid Infection
Fight Back Against Weakened Immunity
What Is Neutropenia?
The Serious Side of Chemotherapy

Tips for Handling Chemo Side Effects
Reduce Side Effects Naturally—Here's How!
New Ways to Beat Back Nausea
Caring for Your Mouth During Chemo
How to Get a Good Night's Sleep
8 Ways to Cope With Chemo
11 Ways to Curb Chemo Fatigue
8 Ways to Cope When Chemo Causes Hot Flashes
On Chemo? Fend off Nausea
Infection Alert!