Chemotherapy: How to Manage the Side Effects

Chemotherapy drugs can be lifesaving, but many cause side effects.


Some of the most common side effects of chemotherapy are nausea and vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, and mouth sores.

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Millions of Americans are diagnosed with some form of cancer every year, and many rely on chemotherapy to fight it. Chemotherapy involves the use of strong medications to kill cancer cells, slow the cancer’s growth, and/or keep the cancer from spreading. Chemotherapy is frequently used in conjunction with surgery or radiation treatment. Many newer chemotherapy agents are much more targeted than older drugs, and, as a result, have fewer side effects. However, there is still a high risk of chemotherapy side effects that range from nausea and fatigue to pain that can drastically impact your quality of life.

Managing your reaction to chemotherapy and minimizing its side effects often involves taking additional medications or adjusting your lifestyle. But the key to finding relief and, in many cases, preventing chemotherapy complications, is to follow your doctor’s recommendations and report changes in your condition as you go through treatment.

Common Chemotherapy Side Effects

Some of the most common side effects of chemotherapy are nausea and vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, and mouth sores. You also may suffer emotional side effects. Talk with your doctor about all possible side effects from chemotherapy treatment so that you’ll know what to expect and how to cope. Report all side effects you experience to your doctor during treatment, so you’re not suffering in silence. A simple anti-nausea medication or sleep aid may help you get through this difficult time.

Fortunately, the medications used to manage chemotherapy side effects can be extremely effective, and new drugs are in development all the time—for example, over the past few years there have been new medications approved to treat nausea associated with chemotherapy. Some people undergoing chemotherapy find they are able to take these other drugs as needed, but doctors often recommend that they are taken regularly to prevent chemotherapy side effects from developing in the first place, or to ease them before they become severe.  This can be one of the best ways to continue to feel as well as possible during chemotherapy.

Easing Chemotherapy Nausea

To help reduce feelings of nausea from chemotherapy drugs, eat several smaller meals throughout the day, rather than two or three large meals. Both cancer and chemotherapy drugs can change the way food tastes and smells, so avoid strong odors and foods that are very spicy. Taking anti-nausea medications regularly can be very helpful to prevent chemotherapy nausea and vomiting from becoming severe. Many patients take tow or three anti-nausea medications in order to control chemotherapy nausea.

Fluctuations in appetite are normal and expected during a serious illness. So in addition to handling chemotherapy nausea, there are also concerns about getting enough calories and nutrition to maintain your strength and health. A poor appetite may be caused by cancer treatment or from the cancer itself. Eating high-calorie foods or nutritional supplements can be helpful, and there are also some medications that can be tried in order to help boost your appetite.

Chemotherapy Hair Loss

Another well-known and often unavoidable consequence of some chemotherapy agents is hair loss. There still isn’t a good way to prevent it, but if your scalp becomes dry or irritated, using an unscented, over-the-counter lotion can help.

Chemotherapy Fatigue

Fatigue is a common side effect from chemotherapy, but there are some simple steps you can take to manage your energy levels. For example, try to get a little physical activity each day, if your condition allows for it and your doctor approves. It may be as simple as walking around your home or apartment once or twice a day. A small amount of caffeine in the morning may help provide an energy boost during the day, too.

Chemotherapy Mouth Sores

Another troubling side effect of chemotherapy is dry mouth, which can also lead to mouth sores. If mouth sores are not a problem, sucking on a sour, sugar-free candy can help stimulate saliva production. Otherwise, some people find that swishing a little bit of water in their mouth can keep a dry mouth from becoming too irritating. Mouth sores should be checked by your doctor, since there are many different causes for these. Your doctor can help prescribe the right treatment depending on the suspected cause of the sore.

Chemotherapy and Your Emotions

Along with physical side effects, emotional complications are an all-to-common result of a cancer diagnosis and a grueling chemotherapy regimen. Having enough emotional support is a critical part of getting through the treatment. Emotional support may come from family members, friends, your religious community, or cancer support groups. Asking for support is never a sign of weakness—it is recognition of how challenging it is to go through cancer treatment.

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Kate Brophy

Kate Brophy is an experienced health writer and editor with a long career in the UK and United States. Kate has been Executive Editor of the Icahn School of Medicine … Read More

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