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Coping with side effects of cancer treatment

If you or someone you love is battling cancer, you know the diagnosis was bad enough. Must the chemotherapy, radiation and supplemental medications used to battle this disease be debilitating, too?

Not necessarily. Today, many common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation usually can be tamed. Still, undergoing treatment is challenging if not downright intimidating. What’s more, side effects aren’t just confined to physical symptoms. Powerful emotional reactions take place, too—sadness, anxiety, even anger and guilt.

Various reactions

It’s important to remember that reactions differ from patient to patient. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause a wide range of other symptoms, but exactly who will experience them, and to what extent, isn’t predictable.

In any event, cancer specialists say there are ways to cope with, and even minimize, side effects such as:

  • Fatigue. Saving your energy is key, so rest and deal only with important matters for now. Give people specific tasks. Eat as well as you can and drink plenty of water, milk or juice. Avoid alcohol and limit caffeine.
  • Nausea. Drugs can now control and even minimize the nausea triggered by chemotherapy. You can also help by eating and drinking small amounts of nourishment at a time, avoiding sweet or fried foods, avoiding cooking odors and using deep breathing and other relaxation techniques.
  • Pain. If you experience discomfort during treatment, tell your doctor. He or she can prescribe effective medication or refer you to a pain specialist. You should wear loose, soft fabrics that won’t irritate your skin. Relaxation exercises like yoga and visualization can also help.
  • Hair loss. A mild shampoo, a soft brush and minimal blow-drying during treatment are important. A shorter hairstyle can make any loss less apparent. Stop perming, dying, braiding, making corn rows or relaxing hair during treatment, and don’t use rollers, hairspray, bobby pins or barrettes.
  • Estrogen loss. Cancer treatment can affect your ovaries, reducing estrogen production and triggering menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal irritation, more frequent urinary tract infections and painful intercourse. Ask your doctor or gynecologist for guidance to overcome these symptoms.

Feeling your feelings

Like physical side effects, your emotional reaction to cancer treatment also can be treated. These coping tips will help you persevere during your daily routine:

  • Stay focused on your treatment goals and stay positive. The side effects of cancer treatment are almost always temporary.
  • Remember that you aren’t alone. Stay connected, even if you must make the “first move” with family and friends. Studies show that when you try to suppress your emotions, you risk harming your immune system.
  • Find assistance outside the home, too. Doctors, nurses and counselors can help you comprehend and fight harder against the unwanted effects of powerful cancer treatments. Support groups exist in nearly every community. Ask your doctor or hospital for a recommendation.
  • Keep in mind how important diet, rest and exercise are to your mental well-being.
  • Learn about your illness to lessen your fear and gain a sense of control over your outcome.