It’s common for patients undergoing cancer treatment to experience side effects—symptoms that occur when the treatment affects healthy tissues or organs. Your health care team can help you prevent or treat many side effects; this is called palliative care or supportive care, and it’s an important part of cancer treatment.
“Some side effects we can prevent. As I’m talking to patients about treatments, I will often go over some of the more common side effects that we see or some of the more severe side effects that we could anticipate,” says WVCI medical oncologist Dr. Keith Wells.
Side effects vary from person to person and depend largely on the type of cancer treatment, whether that’s surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are most commonly reported by patients receiving chemotherapy. These side effects can often be eased with medication. Changing your eating patterns may also help.
- Try eating five or six small meals rather than three big ones.
- Take your time when you eat and drink.
- Drink an hour before or after meals rather than when you eat. Apple juice, tea, and flat ginger ale may help.
- Avoid strong-smelling foods. Strong smells can sometimes bring on nausea.
- Avoid sweets and fried or fatty foods, which can cause queasiness.
During treatment, you may find yourself feeling tired. Consider these tips:
- Rest or take short naps during the day.
- You may not feel up to it, but even a short walk can boost energy.
- Ask family or friends for help when you need it.
- Focus your energy on important things.
If you just can’t shake the tiredness, talk with your care team. For some patients, chemotherapy can lead to anemia and low red blood cell counts. Your doctor can test your blood and treat you, if necessary.
If you have lymph nodes removed during surgery, or if radiation treatment damages a lymph node or vessel, the lymph fluid may not be able to drain properly. Fluid may build up under the skin and cause part of the body to swell. This condition is called lymphedema. The keys to managing lymphedema are preventing infections and allowing fluids to flow through the swollen area. Learn more here.
This condition is caused by damage to a patient’s peripheral nerves—the nerves that are farther away from your brain and spinal cord, such as your hands and feet. Peripheral neuropathy may cause changes in feeling or sensation and may include numbness, tingling or pain. Medicines can relieve pain caused by peripheral neuropathy, but they do not help with numbness.
Eating a diet that includes specific nutrients might help, such as B vitamins, including B1, B12, and folic acid, or supplemental antioxidants like those found in many fruits and vegetables. Ask your doctor or health care team about a balanced diet. Meeting with a nutrition specialist can help ensure that what you eat and drink is helping your nerve problems and not making them worse.
Side effects associated with immunotherapy
Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer.
“Immunotherapies have a different set of potential side effects than other types of treatment, such as chemotherapy,” says Dr. Wells. “With immunotherapy, we try to boost the immune system to allow it to help fight off the cancer, and sometimes those immunotherapies can boost the immune system a bit too much.”
When the immune system overreacts it can trigger a variety of symptoms. Most of the time, these conditions are mild, but sometimes, they can be severe. However, these autoimmune reactions may also be an indication that the treatment is working.
- Skin rash
- Colitis (inflamed bowel)
- Bone and joint pain
“It’s been shown that people who have these autoimmune reactions tend to have better outcomes, because it’s showing that the immune system is actually responding to the therapy and engaging to fight off the disease,” says medical oncologist Dr. Jon Gross.
Depending on how severe a patient’s side effects are, your doctor may pause treatment or prescribe a type of medication called a corticosteroid. If side effects worsen or do not improve, your doctor may stop immunotherapy.
As a companion to standard cancer treatment, complimentary therapies have been shown to help patients ease side effects, including:
- Specialized massage for easing lymphedema
- Acupuncture for relieving nausea and neuropathy
- Relaxation techniques, like deep breathing and meditation, to help with anxiety and emotional distress
“Medical oncologists are using their therapies while naturopaths are using their therapies to help with some of the side effects and to enhance the effects of our treatments,” says Dr. Gross. “And, I notice that patients who pursue both avenues tend to have a better experience.”
For more information on easing specific side effects associated with cancer and cancer treatment click here.