Managing the side effects of treatment

No matter what type of cancer treatment you receive – chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy or other types of therapy – you will most likely experience side effects. Some will be mild, others severe, but be sure to talk with your doctors so they can treat your side effects and improve your quality of life.

Common side effects of cancer treatment are pain, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, anemia, constipation and diarrhea. Doctors treat these side effects in various ways:

Pain. Nearly all cancer pain can be treated successfully. For mild pain, you may be given acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID, such as Advil). For moderate to severe pain, you may be given opioids, sometimes along with NSAIDs. Other drugs, such as anti-seizure medicine, antidepressants, bisphosphonates and steroids, may be given alone or with pain medicine to increase their effectiveness.

Other treatments that relieve pain include hot and cold packs, massage, exercise, controlled low-voltage electrical stimulation and acupuncture. Behavioral techniques, such as biofeedback, and support groups may help you develop coping skills. Read more.

Nausea and Vomiting. Your doctor may prescribe one or more drugs that prevent nausea and vomiting (called antiemetics) based on how likely it is that your cancer treatment will make you sick to your stomach. Acupuncture may also improve how well the drugs work.

Behavioral treatments such as self-hypnosis and relaxation techniques may also help, especially if you get sick in anticipation of your next treatment. Other suggestions to try include eating bland, soft foods and eating several small meals daily. Sip water slowly if a full glass makes you sick. Read more.

Cancer-Related Fatigue. Cancer-related fatigue and pain associated with fatigue can be debilitating. Your doctor will look for and treat any underlying physical conditions, such as an infection. Because emotional difficulty and stress contribute to fatigue, you may also try counseling, yoga, meditation and support groups. A nutritionist may help you eat a balanced diet that provides the fluids and minerals your body needs.

If your doctor approves, engage in light to moderate exercise to build up your energy level. Follow a regular sleep routine, and take any naps early in the day so they don’t interfere with a good night’s sleep. Your doctor may recommend sleep medicine if needed. Read more.

Anemia. This condition occurs when you have too few red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Anemia may be treated with a transfusion of red blood cells. You and your doctor also may consider injections of a synthetic version of erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the formation of red blood cells in your bone marrow. Be sure to talk about the risks of this drug, which can be serious.

Because a nutritional deficiency may cause anemia, you may be given iron, folic acid pills or vitamin B12 shots. You may also be encouraged to eat foods high in iron (such as red meat and dried beans) or folic acid (such as enriched breads and cereals). Read more.

Constipation. Your doctor may change a medicine you take (for example, an opioid for pain) if it causes constipation. Your doctor will also check for and treat any disorders of your nerves, muscles, bowel or metabolism that may cause constipation. Use laxatives only if ordered by your doctor. Other steps you can take include drinking eight glasses of water each day, exercising on a regular basis and eating more dietary fiber (unless your doctor advises otherwise).

Diarrhea. Your doctor may change your medicines, laxative regimen, diet and fluid intake to treat diarrhea. Eating bananas, rice, apples and toast – known as the BRAT diet – plus drinking up to three quarts of clear fluids each day may resolve mild diarrhea. Eat foods that contain potassium and sodium because your body loses these during diarrhea. Severe diarrhea may require intravenous fluids and nutrition, and your doctor may also prescribe drugs to lessen bowel activity. Read more.

Common Side Effects by Treatment Type

Treatment options may be accompanied by certain side effects. Not every person will have every side effect, and not every person will have the same reaction to a side effect. Talk with your doctor about possible side effects of each treatment option to help you make a more informed treatment decision.


Treatment type Common Side Effects
Chemotherapy Fatigue, pain, mouth and throat sores, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, constipation, alopecia (hair loss)
Immunotherapy Immune-mediated adverse reactions, fatigue, cough, nausea, skin problems, loss of appetite, joint pain, constipation, diarrhea
Radiation Fatigue, skin problems, alopecia (hair loss), low blood counts, eating problems
Targeted therapy Nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, mouth sores, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, fatigue, headache, alopecia (hair loss)
Stem cell transplantation Weakened immune system, nausea and vomiting, mouth sores, fatigue, low levels of platelets and red blood cells, diarrhea


For more in-depth information on side effects please visit our Treatment Side Effects section.


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