For many, the treatment for cancer is as terrifying as the disease itself. Cancer treatment is well known for its side-effects rather than what it actually does to the body. Many times, the treatment side-effects persist even after the treatment and may take a few weeks to months to fade away.
Every person’s body reacts differently when it comes to the side-effects of cancer treatment. They may also vary depending on the type of medication, duration and the patient’s general health. Following are some of the common side-effects and their corresponding management strategies.
Anaemia and low blood cell counts
Sometimes, cancer treatment or the cancer itself can cause anaemia, where the haemoglobin levels fall below normal.
Chemotherapy may lead to low blood counts, causing the possibility of a variety of symptoms. The symptoms depend on the type of low blood cell count. Before every cycle of administering the chemotherapy, blood count will have to be tested.
Initially, one may not notice any symptoms, but as blood count drops down further, the person may experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and light-headedness. This may result in either delay of cancer treatment or a requirement of reduced drug dose.
Management for anaemia
Balance activity and rest
Consider engaging in activities according to your tolerance levels. Prioritize important activities and choose to work when you have the most energy during the day. Seek help for those activities which do not require your involvement.
Check for symptoms
Be vigilant for any unusual symptoms and inform the healthcare provider immediately. It is better to maintain a log of the symptoms, recording their time of occurrence and conditions that are making them worse or better, which might help in better planning of your activities.
Eat an iron-rich diet
Including iron-rich foods in your diet with your doctor’s advice can help to improve the falling blood counts. Such foods may include leafy vegetables like spinach, beans, eggs, lentils, sweet potatoes, meat etc.
Depending on the severity of anemia, management will be prescribed by your doctor.
Fatigue is a common problem experienced by many cancer patients. Often, cancer-associated conditions, such as anaemia, pain and stress can also cause or worsen fatigue.
Sometimes patients may need to permanently change their lifestyle to prevent fatigue and cope with the long-term effects of treatment.
Management of fatigue
Identify your energy levels
Evaluate yourself and make a note of the times when you feel energetic or tired. It helps to manage your activity and identify the factors contributing to energy depletion.
Plan your activity
Choose activities that are relaxing and manage your energy levels. Mild exercise may help you to feel better and lower your stress levels.
A short nap for less than one hour during the day can help you feel re-energised, however, excessive rest may make you feel more tired. Balance your activities and rest before you feel fatigued. Choose your tasks that are most important and seek help for others.
Aim for good health
Eat a well-balanced and nutritious diet, such as foods with high amounts of protein and calories. Break your daily diet into many small meals instead of having a few large meals.
Drink plenty of water to stay active and energised. Additionally, regular exercise may help you to regain strength and stamina.
Diarrhoea is also one of the common side-effects experienced by cancer patients. It can be mild, severe and persistent.
You may have thin or watery stools or a sense of urgency to have a bowel movement. In some people, diarrhoea may be accompanied by abdominal bloating or cramps.
Management of diarrhoea
Consume at least eight to twelve glasses of water in a day. Consider having clear broths or pulp-less fruit juices.
Prefer having water in between meals, instead of having it along with meals. Also, consumption of foods containing beneficial bacteria has shown to reduce the occurrence and severity of diarrhoea.
Take good care of your stomach
Make good food choices that are easy on the stomach and don’t worsen the condition. Consider eating small frequent meals rather than large meals.
Maintain anal hygiene
Frequent bowel movements may cause soreness in the rectal area. Try warm or sitz baths to relieve itchiness, burning, or pain during bowel movements.
Avoid rubbing, instead pat the area clean using a soft towel.
Consult your physician when required
Severe diarrhoea may lead to dehydration that may impose serious complications. Inform your doctor if you have diarrhoea more than three to four times a day. Take antidiarrheal medicine only with doctor’s advice.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea is another common symptom experienced by cancer patients which may last from a few hours to several weeks post-treatment. It may or may not be accompanied by vomiting.
Often medicines are used to prevent or control such conditions and other serious problems, such as malnutrition and dehydration that might result from persistent vomiting.
Management of nausea and vomiting
Seek doctor’s advice
Speak with your healthcare advisor to know about the right medicine for you and its usage. Also inform your doctor if the medicine is not effective, as there are many other options available that may work for you.
Drink plenty of fluids
Drink plenty of water to help your body replenish the fluids that are lost and prevent dehydration. Try to sip water or other fluids like fruit juices.
Watch your diet
Eat slowly and consider eating small frequent meals rather than a large meal. Avoid spicy foods, sweets, and foods that are hard to digest.
Also, stay away from foods with a pungent smell. Identify the time when you don’t feel more nauseous and try eating more food during such times.
Plan your diet during treatment days
Some people may find it better to eat a small snack before treatment, while others prefer to avoid eating or drinking before and after treatment. However, it is recommended to avoid eating or drinking for one-hour post-treatment.
Changes in sense of taste
Metallic taste in the mouth during cancer treatment is common and may resolve over time. Patients often complain that the food seems to have no taste or doesn’t taste as it was before treatment.
Management of changes in sense of taste
Maintain oral hygiene
Cleaning your mouth before having food might help food taste better. Additionally, good oral hygiene helps to prevent other problems associated with cancer treatment.
Handle the bad taste
Try foods that help in eliminating bad taste in the mouth. Fruit flavoured gums, mints, etc. may help to decrease metallic taste in your mouth.
Enhance food flavours
Try to improve the flavours and taste of the food by adding spices/seasoning or sweetening agents. Some people may find chilled versions better.
Loss of appetite
People with cancer treatment may have difficulty in eating due to the side effects like mouth and throat problems, nausea and vomiting or fatigue. However, adherence to good nutritional practices are essential for better recovery and for reducing the risk of infections.
Management of loss of appetite
Hydrate your body
Drinking plenty of fluids is important, especially when experiencing a loss of appetite, to avoid other complications like dehydration.
Try sipping small amounts of fluids throughout the day. Consider drinking beverages after meals instead of before or during a meal to increase your food intake.
Practise healthy eating
Consider eating small, frequent meals or snacks from six to eight times a day rather than having large meals. Try to include nutrient-dense foods with higher amounts of protein and fats. Avoid foods with low nutritional values.
Being active like a daily short walk also helps to improve your appetite.
Hair loss is a common and distressing problem with cancer treatment. Some types of cancer treatments can cause hair loss that could be temporary, while others could lead to permanent hair loss.
Management of hair loss
Be gentle with your hair
Use mild shampoos without any fragrances and pat your hair dry using a soft towel.
Avoid excessive combing and choose a soft-bristled hair brush or a wide-mouthed comb. Also, avoid using products that may harm your scalp or hair, such as dryers, gels or clips.
Try other choices
Some people choose to cut their hair short, while others choose to shave their head. There are other options, such as wigs to make you feel better. Some may find it better to wear a comfortable scarf or hat.
Protect your scalp
Protect your head from the sun, cold, and wind by wearing a comfortable scarf, or a hat. If you shaved the head then apply sunscreen while you are outside.
Try applying lotions that can make you feel better when your scalp turns itchy or tender.
Skin and nail problems
Skin or nail changes due to cancer treatment may range from mild to severe, depending on the type of treatment. Your skin may turn dry, itchy, and change its colour.
Sometimes the treatment may cause an extensive skin rash, painful blisters or make the skin appear swollen. Your nails may break easily. Inform your healthcare provider right away if you notice any such symptoms.
Management of skin and nail problems
Protect your skin
Be gentle with your skin and clean it using lukewarm water and pat dry with a soft cloth. Use mild soaps that are recommended by doctors.
Using specific creams or lotions with doctor’s advice may help in preventing your skin from becoming dry or itchy. Use sunscreens or a hat to prevent sunburn when you are outdoors.
Choose to wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothing to avoid skin irritation.
Avoid skin infections
Sometimes cancer treatment may make skin wet and painful, especially in unexposed skin areas, such as the back of the ears, breasts or bottom.
It is important to maintain the area dry and clean and avoid rubbing or scratching the affected area. Use dressings or medical tapes only with doctor’s advice.
Prevent nail problems
Ensure that your nails are clean and clip them regularly to avoid accidental tearing. Wear protective gloves to protect your hands and nails during household work.
Use appropriate and comfortable footwear.
Many patients experience sleeping problems during cancer treatment; prolonged sleep trouble may lead to depression or anxiety.
Keep your doctor informed about your sleeping problems, it will help in better diagnosis and treatment of your problem.
Management of troubled sleeping
Seek doctor’s support
Getting the right treatment for other problems causing sleep disturbances helps to overcome sleeping difficulties. Sometimes, you may be prescribed with sleep medication for a short duration.
Other strategies such as relaxation techniques, deep breathing or self-hypnosis may also help you to sleep better.
Follow good sleeping habits
Ensure your bedroom is cosy, comfortable, dark and quiet.
Avoid screen activity at-least two hours before bed and also avoid eating too much before going to bed.
If you find it difficult to fall asleep, move out of bed and try to sleep when you feel sleepy.
Cancer treatment may affect your sexual desire and ability. Some women may experience cessation of menstrual cycles, while men may experience decreased or absence of sperm counts after cancer treatment.
Management of sexual problems
Dealing with related side effects
Managing other side effects that may affect your sex life, such as pain, fatigue, depression, loss of interest, troubled sleeping may help to overcome the problem to a certain extent.
Talking with your healthcare provider may help you obtain the right treatment that can make you feel better.
Seek doctor’s advice
Discuss all your concerns about the impact of treatment on your fertility and related issues. It helps in knowing ways to improve your chances of having children, such as sperm banking, in-vitro fertilization etc.
The healthcare team can also help you to learn about medications and exercises to reduce your sexual problems. Counselling also helps in dealing with many of your concerns and helps you to manage your condition.