Monday 5 September, 2022

How to Cope with Side Effects of Cancer

Side effects of cancer range far and wide – depending on the kind of cancer you experience, the treatment you go through, and other things such as your lifestyle. And as complex beings, our physical, emotional, social, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing are closely interlinked. When something doesn’t feel quite right, like a headache, for example, it also affects other aspects of your wellbeing, such as your mental health or emotional resilience. 

Though you may be acutely aware of some of the side effects of cancer, we’ll break down some common side effects during and after cancer treatment, how they correlate to your mental health, and a few general pieces of advice to approach side effects when going through cancer.

What we’ll cover in this blog:
Side effects during cancer treatment + tips
Side effects after cancer treatment 
Side effects directly correlate to your mental health
Advice when experiencing cancer side effects

Side effects during cancer treatment 

If you go through chemotherapy treatment, some common side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, hair loss, fatigue, dryness in mucous membranes, stomach ulcers, and mouth sores. If you have surgery to treat cancer, it’s normal to experience body stiffness, peripheral neuropathy, or sensitivity on scars. If you go through radiation therapy, you may have permanent ink markings from your cancer treatment. 

Quick tips on how to deal with these side effects: 
  • Hair loss: Take control over the situation by shaving your head when you notice that you start losing your hair. It’ll feel brave and courageous – an empowering way to position yourself in the driver’s seat of your life. Plus, you’ll skip feeling sad/bad every time you find hair falling out (in the shower, when brushing, etc.). If you want, involve loved ones for support and to share this moment together. 
  • Fatigue: Try to do something small, even if it’s a 10 minute walk or making something simple to eat. Call a friend if you want. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re too tired to do anything. Rest. 
  • Cold/hot sweats: Wear clothes that are easy to take off and put on so that you can easily adjust your clothes to suit your body temperature. When you feel a cold or hot sweat coming, try and “scan” it with your mind, aware of it, and letting it come and keeping your cool (pun intended). 
  • Body stiffness: Try and move despite your stiffness, even if it’s the small motions, such as putting on your shoes or taking off your jacket. Moving helps ease stiffness – try yoga if you can or treat yourself to a massage.
  • Lost body part or scar: Try and work towards acceptance (more about acceptance as a stage of grief here). Remember that you are still you, even if your body dhas changed. Dare to look at your scars and see them as a keepsake, a reminder of what you’ve experienced and overcome, and something to be proud of
  • Nausea: Seek professional advice from your healthcare team and see if there’s a medication that can help you with this. Don’t be afraid to take medication in the short term if it will help you feel better during an otherwise very challenging time for your body. It may help to eat softer and blander foods, and try eating some ginger. 
  • Constipation: Get more fiber, fruits and vegetables into your system if you can. If it’s hard to cope with eating those kinds of foods, laxatives are a good short-term solution to get you through, and drink water. Hydration really helps with bowel health. 

Learn more about how to capitalize on nutrition to prepare your body for cancer treatment before, during, and after cancer from Dr. David Heber and Certified Dietician Adele Hug in this article. Or, read up on how to cope with expectations on your physical self throughout cancer here.

Side effects after cancer treatment

The side effects that happen after completing cancer treatment can range significantly from little to no effects to a complete change in quality of life and function. This depends heavily on the kind of treatment you went through and the kind of cancer you experienced. After going through cancer, you can experience everything from chemo-brain to fatigue, changes in feeling or sensation, or a change in your fertility.

Side effects that happen after cancer treatment can be very frustrating because you sometimes just want to be done with all the cancer stuff. In addition, the pressure to go back to “normal” from your community after cancer treatment (ie “yay you survived! Let’s go live life!”) is exacerbated by the fact that side effects impact the way we are – how we function, our mental health, and our capacity to feel like ourselves. 

In order to come back to ourselves and feel the energy to return to everyday life, it’s important to be able to learn how to work through short-term side effects and manage chronic changes with a healthy mindset. Talk with your healthcare team about how they can ease these effects. Experiment what works for you and be curious about how to approach what you’re going through. You can find a few tips from a psychologist on how to approach curiosity when rebuilding your identity after a major life change here.

Side effects directly correlate to your mental health

It’s critical to know that mental health in relation to cancer treatment is highly normal. In our latest Health Study that explored the mental health of people affected by cancer, 92% expressed a need for mental health support.This is not only because going through cancer is a challenge, but because cancer and cancer treatment has a direct impact on your mental state. 

For example, some chemotherapy drugs can cause depression, chemo brain fog (a kind of brain fog that makes it difficult to focus) and fatigue. Or, if you’ve had a body part removed, it can impact your nervous system which is directly correlated to your mental health. 

It’s also possible that the cancer type you have or the cancer treatment you go through can affect your mood, emotional wellbeing, or sexual desires. For example, if you go through hormone therapy to treat breast cancer, the treatment can lower sex hormone production which is why you can experience cold and hot sweats. This can affect the way you see yourself, your identity, and your relationships, which all impact your overall emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. Don’t be hard on yourself about this. Remember that you’re not alone (after all, some 50% of the population at one time or the other experience menopause!). Learn about how to manage this from others who’ve gone through something similar in the War On Cancer app. 

Here are some more resources on how to cope if your side effects are impacting your mental health: 

Advice when experiencing cancer side effects

The list and different circumstances on how cancer or cancer treatment may affect you goes on. This isn’t to scare you but to make you aware that what you are experiencing is probably normal. Here are a few simple action points to keep in mind when dealing with side effects during or after cancer.

Always talk to your healthcare team about the side effects of cancer treatment

Before you start cancer treatment (or if you’re in treatment and want to know what the side effects could be after treatment), make sure to ask your healthcare team about the most common side effects for the type of treatment they recommend as well as uncommon ones that could still happen! By mentally preparing yourself for what could come makes it come as less of a surprise, and something much more manageable – both physically and emotionally.

The first thing you should always do when experiencing side effects because of cancer or cancer treatment is to talk about it with your healthcare team. Ask your doctor or healthcare team if there’s anything they can do to minimize the side effects. Remember that being open with your doctor about what’s going on – whether they’re physical or mental side effects – is the best way to work towards finding a solution and improving your wellbeing. These days, there are pretty effective medications that work towards minimizing some side effects, such as nausea. Since your healthcare team knows what cancer you have and treatment you’re going through, they are the best possible resource to give you relevant and effective advice. 

Keep your doctor or healthcare team updated so they can continually ease the effects.

Share the side effects you’re experiencing with loved ones 

It’s not common knowledge (yet) that people who’ve gone through cancer experience side effects after treatment, whether they’re short-term or long-term. That’s why it’s super important for you to be open about what it is that’s currently affecting you and your abilities, even if it’s hard to open up about it or it feels uncomfortable. The vast majority of people will be open, understanding, and reach out a hand. Sharing with your loved ones can help them better understand and support you.This does wonders for your social wellbeing and mental health – knowing you’re not going at it alone and can connect and share your experience with others. 

Be kind to yourself

Adjusting to a new reality, whether it be cancer or any other life change, is a process. Allow for it to take time. Don’t force what isn’t there, but encourage yourself after every small win. Practice empathy towards yourself when you feel you take a step back. As we know from The Hare And The Tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.

Share with and learn from others who understand what it’s like 

Connect with others who’ve experienced something similar. By joining the community on the War On Cancer app, you’ll learn how to cope from people who know what it’s like. We’re all individuals and experience side effects differently, so make sure you do what makes you feel best, what brings you energy, and helps you get through the day. 

War On Cancer is patient-founded and a community of people who know what cancer is like. It’s a place where you can ask all the questions, share your experience, and read others’ stories. Whether you’re struggling to know if your side effects are “good” or “bad” during or after treatment, coping with fatigue, or learning how to manage every day with side effects, join, learn from, and belong to the War On Cancer community today.

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