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Coping with the physical effects of cancer

Cancer and treatments to fight the disease may cause side effects that are difficult to handle. But you and your doctor can create a plan to help ease these problems.

Coping with cancer can be exhausting. The disease and the treatments you may need to fight it can take a significant toll on your body, leaving you tired and battling nausea, weight loss and a variety of other side effects.

While there's no way to avoid the side effects of cancer entirely, you don't have to simply accept them. A variety of strategies, including medicines and lifestyle changes, may help you feel better.

How to cope

The following are some common side effects of cancer and some tips on coping with them.

Pain. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), controlling pain is a standard part of cancer treatment. Pain can be caused by cancer, treatments for the disease or both. Never hesitate to talk with your doctor about how to treat pain. A variety of strategies—such as medicine, surgery and nerve blocks—can help.

Once pain is controlled, you will sleep and eat better and be better able to continue with work and other activities.

Nausea/vomiting. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments often cause nausea and vomiting. However, medicines can help control the problem. The ACS says that the following eating habits may help as well:

  • For nausea that only happens between meals, eat small snacks throughout the day to keep something in your stomach.
  • Eat bland, dry foods, such as crackers or toast.
  • Avoid greasy, fried or spicy foods.
  • Sip clear liquids often to prevent dehydration.

Poor appetite. Cancer and its treatments can decrease appetite, but not eating well can cause weakness, weight loss and fatigue. Eating right can actually help your treatment.

To overcome a poor appetite:

  • Allow yourself to eat your favorite foods.
  • Eat high-protein foods and snacks.
  • Eat high-calorie, easy-to-eat foods like pudding, yogurt and milkshakes in small amounts several times a day. 

Fatigue. Fatigue is often one of the first symptoms of cancer. It may be a sign that the disease is progressing. It may also be caused by cancer treatments or be a result of other side effects such as a poor appetite.

Another common cause of fatigue is anemia, a condition in which the body does not have enough red blood cells or when the blood cells don't have enough hemoglobin. Anemia can be caused by cancer, cancer treatments or other medical issues. There are medicines that can ease fatigue by helping the body make more red blood cells.

Other strategies for coping with fatigue include starting a light-to-moderate exercise routine and keeping a daily schedule that allows for both activity and rest, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Lymphedema. This common cancer complication happens when surgery or radiation therapy affects lymph nodes or vessels, causing a buildup of lymph fluid. Symptoms include chronic swelling, usually of the arm or leg.

Treatments for lymphedema may include:

  • Range-of-motion exercises.
  • Compression.
  • Drainage.

Perseverance is key

Most side effects go away when treatment ends. But some side effects may last months or years.

It may take many attempts to find a treatment strategy that helps you. It's important to keep the lines of communication open with your doctor and always inform them when your condition changes.

Reviewed 11/15/2023

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