All cancer treatments can cause side effects. It’s important that you report any side effects you experience to your health care team so they can help you manage them. Report them right away—don’t wait for your next appointment. Early reporting can help improve your quality of life and allow you to stick with your treatment plan. It’s important to remember that not all people experience all side effects, and some people may experience side effects not listed here.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type and dose of drugs given and the length of time they are used, and can include:
- Hair loss
- Increased risk of infection (from having too few white blood cells)
- Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few platelets)
- Changes in memory or thinking
- Peripheral neuropathy (numbness or tingling in hands and feet)
Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
Changes to the skin are the most common side effects of radiation therapy. The changes can include dryness, swelling, peeling, redness and blistering—similar to a severe sunburn but usually occurring much more gradually. If a reaction occurs, contact your health care team so the appropriate treatment can be prescribed. It’s especially important to contact your health care team if there is any open skin or painful area, as this could indicate an infection. Infections can be treated with an oral antibiotic or topical antibiotic cream.
Side Effects of Targeted Therapy
Targeted therapy doesn’t have the same effects on the body as chemotherapy drugs, but it can still cause side effects. Side effects of targeted therapies can include fevers, sun sensitivity, diarrhea, liver problems (such as hepatitis and elevated liver enzymes), nerve damage, rashes, high blood pressure and problems with blood clotting and wound healing.
Side Effects of Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy travels through the bloodstream, helping to prompt an immune response. Sometimes the immune system may attack healthy cells as well as cancer cells, and certain side effects may be experienced.
Common side effects include fatigue, decreased appetite, skin rash and lightening of the skin. Other less common side effects include shortness of breath or frequent episodes of diarrhea. Immunotherapy can also affect the thyroid gland, adrenal gland or pituitary gland. Blood work is routinely taken and symptoms that may be associated with glandular issues are closely monitored while patients are on immunotherapy.
General Side Effects
There are certain side effects that may occur across different treatment approaches. Following are tips for managing these side effects. Your health care team may have additional guidance for your specific treatment type.
Managing Digestive Tract Symptoms Nausea and vomiting
- Eat small, frequent meals.
- Avoid food with strong odors, as well as overly sweet, greasy, fried or highly seasoned food.
- Eat meals cold or at room temperature, which often makes food more easily tolerated.
- Having something in your stomach when you take medication may help ease nausea.
- Drink plenty of water. Ask your doctor about using drinks such as Gatorade, which provide electrolytes. Electrolytes are body salts that must stay in balance for cells to work properly.
- Over-the-counter medicines such as loperamide (Imodium A-D and others) and prescription drugs are available for diarrhea but should be used only if necessary and with your health care team’s knowledge and approval. If the diarrhea is bad enough that you need medicine, contact a member of your health care team.
- Choose foods that contain soluble fiber, like beans, oat cereals and flaxseed, and high-pectin foods such as peaches, apples, oranges, bananas and apricots.
- Avoid food high in refined sugar and those sweetened with sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and mannitol.
Loss of appetite
Eating small meals throughout the day is an easy way to take in more protein and calories, which will help maintain your weight. Try to include protein in every meal. Nutrition shakes or protein drinks are a way to add calories to your daily diet.
To keep from feeling full early, avoid liquids with meals or take only small sips (unless you need liquids to help swallow). Drink most of your liquids between meals.
Keep high-calorie, high-protein snacks on hand such as hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter, cheese, ice cream, granola bars, liquid nutritional supplements, puddings, nuts, canned tuna and trail mix.
If you are struggling to maintain your appetite, talk to your health care team about whether appetite-building medication could be right for you.
There are a number of options for pain relief, including prescription and over-the-counter medications. It’s important to talk to a member of your health care team before taking any over-the-counter medication to determine if it is safe and will not interfere with your treatment. Many pain medications can lead to constipation. Your doctor can recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications that help to avoid or manage constipation.
Physical therapy, acupuncture and massage may also be of help in managing your pain. Consult with a member of your health care team before beginning any of these activities.
Fatigue (extreme tiredness not helped by sleep) is one of the most common side effects of many cancer treatments. If you are very fatigued while on treatment, your doctor may lower the dose of the drug(s), as long as it does not make the treatment less effective. If you are experiencing fatigue, talk to your doctor about whether taking a smaller dose is right for you.
There are a number of other tips for reducing fatigue:
Take several short naps or breaks during the day.
Take walks or do some light exercise, if possible.
Try easier or shorter versions of the activities you enjoy.
Ask your family or friends to help you with tasks you find difficult or tiring.
There are also prescription medications that may help, such as modafinil. Your health care team can provide guidance on whether medication is the right approach for your individual circumstances.