93 Chemotherapy Side Effects Remedies and Tips for Cancer Patients to Improve Quality of Life

Chemotherapy Side Effects Remedies TipsLet’s get real here:

According to CDC, around 650,000 cancer patients receive chemotherapy treatment in an outpatient oncology clinic in the United States each year.

Chemotherapy can help to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells, but it has a notorious reputation for damaging healthy cells and cause terrible side effects.

Although everyone reacts differently, understand and manage the common chemo side effects or prevent them in the first place is certainly beneficial.
 
 
Here are 93 chemotherapy side effects remedies and tips, recommended by healthcare professionals and nutritionists to help improve cancer patients’ quality of life:

1. Nausea and Vomiting

According to Canadian Cancer Society, chemo affects parts of the stomach and brain that detect toxic substances. This may cause nausea and vomiting as the body tries to rid itself of the toxins.

Nausea and vomiting can start within the first few hours after chemo drugs are given, and usually last about 24 hours. However, these chemotherapy side effects may start more than 24 hours after treatment and last several days.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Eat a light, bland meal before your treatment (e.g. soup with crackers or toast) as nausea is often worse if your stomach is empty. Avoid heavy, high fat and greasy meals right before chemo.
  • Your healthcare provider may prescribe anti-nausea medicines. This is especially helpful for people with anticipatory nausea after having a few treatments, where the patients feel nauseated even before chemo is given as they expect to be sick.

    Oncologist Dr. Tony Talebi comprehensively discussed the chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting in video below, including excellent eating tips for the patients besides medicines.

  • Anti-nausea candies and munchies that give some relief during chemo sessions. You can get anything with ginger or lemon in it, such as Gin Gins ginger chews and Queasy Drops.
  • Anti-nausea wristband which works by using acupressure for natural nausea relief.
  • Eat foods slowly and in small amounts at a time.
  • Eat foods that are cold or at room temperature, because the smell of hot or warm foods might make you more nauseous.
  • Rest after meals to allow time for digestion. Avoid laying down flat after a meal or snack.
  • Wear loose clothing, as pressure from a belt or a tight shirt against your abdomen can worsen the sensation of nausea.
  • Do not eat or drink anything until you have the vomiting under control.
  • Once the vomiting is under control, try taking clear liquids such as water or broth.
  • After every episode of vomiting, gargle with a baking soda solution (1 teaspoon of baking soda in 8 ounces of warm water) to cleanse your mouth.

In video below, registered dietitian Sonia Marcil of The Ottawa Hospital shared more tips on how to manage nausea and vomiting during cancer treatment — including what foods to eat, when to eat and how to ensure you continue getting the proper nutrition.
 
Recommended Read: What To Bring for Chemo? Here are 17 Must-Have Items in Chemo Bag
 
 

 

2. Fatigue

Feeling tired and lacking energy is the most common side effect of chemotherapy, according to a research published in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The primary causes are Anemia (more on this later), nausea, vomiting, and insomnia. Fatigue may also occur as your body tries to repair the healthy cells and tissue damaged by chemotherapy.

Fatigue can happen within days after a chemo treatment, and it can last long after treatment ends especially when you have other treatment like radiation therapy. Fatigue usually gets better over time.

You may have a heavy feeling in your limbs, feel more tired than usual, get worn out quickly, feeling that you just can’t be bothered to do much and wanting to stay in bed all day.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Plan activities for the time of day when you tend to feel most energetic.
  • Prioritize your energy on important tasks.
  • Allow your body to recover by taking regular breaks. Rest or take short naps during the day.
  • Make time for regular exercise. Light to moderate exercise can reduce chemo-related fatigue and help you sleep better. Even a short walk may boost your energy and improve mood.
  • Talk it out to your family or friends, as anxiety and fear can add to fatigue as well, says WebMD. Let out some of those feelings, while you can also join support group to hear how other chemo patients are handling their exhaustion.

Mayo Clinic recommends the following ways to manage your cancer fatigue:
 

 

3. Mouth Sores, Dry Mouth, and Throat Sores.

Chemotherapy’s effect on cells inside the mouth and cause a sore mouth (also called oral mucositis). You may develop painful sores, ulcers or infection in the mouth, throat or gums.

Chemo can slow down production of saliva and cause dry mouth and dental caries that cannot be addressed just by drinking more fluid, since water may dilute the salivary mucins required for oral health and still not relieve the symptoms.

Your mouth may become sore anywhere from 5 to 10 days after chemotherapy starts. Mucositis is usually temporary and goes away a few weeks after treatment is finished.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Discuss any dental issues with your oncologist before seeing the dentist. If you need any dental work, tell your dentist you’re having chemotherapy.
  • Suck on ice chips or sugar-free gum or candies during chemo, to keep your mouth moist.
  • Use alcohol-free and sugar-free dry mouth oral rinse, such as Biotene and Prevention Oncology mouth rinse, can help to sooth oral tissues and offer relief from soreness.
  • Use oral spray with natural Xylitol to help stimulate saliva and inhibit bacterial growth in the patient’s mouth. Spry moisturizing mouth spray is a good choice.
  • Your doctor may prescribe pain-relieving medicines if you have trouble or pain with swallowing.
  • Brush teeth after each meal with a small, soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste.
  • Drink with a straw to help push the liquid beyond the painful parts of your mouth.
  • Eat foods that are soft, cool, nonspicy, and non-acidic. Blend foods to make them easier to eat if your mouth is irritated. Try smoothies made of fruit and yoghurt.
  • Use unscented hydrating lip balm to relieve dry or cracked lips caused by chemo.

4. Diarrhea

Chemo drugs can make your bowels move way more often, resulting in diarrhea with frequent passing of loose, watery stools.

Diarrhea and digestive upsets can happen soon after chemotherapy starts, and may continue for up to 2 weeks after the treatment has ended. This adverse effect is often worse when combinations of chemotherapy drugs are given.

A prolonged bout of diarrhea or vomiting can cause the body to lose more fluid than it can take in, and the result is dehydration.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Keep sipping fluids throughout the day so that you don’t get dehydrated. Drink caffeine-free liquids between meals, rather than with meals.
  • With diarrhea it is important to replace fluids and electrolytes. Vegetable broth made from organic vegetables such as celery, kale, spinach, parsley, carrots, zucchini, potatoes, and tomatoes is a good source of electrolytes.
  • Eat primarily warm, cooked foods.
  • Choose bland foods such as clear broth or boiled rice.
  • When your stomach is upset, try drinking fizzy drinks such as soda water or dry ginger ale.
  • Avoid spicy foods, fatty or fried foods, raw fruits, rich sauces or vegetables with seeds or skins.

Watch this video to learn more about bowel changes during chemo treatment, alongside helpful nutrition tips to manage chemo-induced diarrhea and constipation — as recommended by Charis Spielman, certified specialist in oncology nutrition.
 

 

5. Constipation

Chemo patient may experience constipation when stools become dry, hard, and difficult to pass. This tends to happen within a few days after chemo starts.

The causes of this side effect include chemotherapy drug, medicines given with chemo to relieve nausea and vomiting, and drinking less fluids after diarrhea.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Eat more high-fibre foods, such as wholegrain bread and pasta, bran, fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes (e.g. baked beans or lentils).
  • University of California San Francisco recommends to add unprocessed wheat bran to hot cereals and yogurt.
  • Over the counter laxative or stool softener.
  • Ask doctor about enema that injects fluid into the intestines through the rectum. This is a procedure generally used after other diet and lifestyle changes have not offered relief.

 

6. Weight Loss and Changes in Appetite, Taste, Smell.

Nausea and vomiting, fatigue and a buildup of waste products as cancer cells die can cause a loss of appetite. Some chemo medicines can can affect taste buds and affect your sense of taste, which can make food less appetizing.

You may become more sensitive to smells. Smells that others don’t notice may make you nauseous. It can take months for both the sense of smell and taste to return to normal after chemotherapy.

Some people may not feel like eating at all, even though they know they need to. Even foods that you normally crave, like sweet or salty snacks, can taste bad. This can lead to weight loss and malnutrition.

Having good nutrition during and after chemo is important to help you recover from treatment.
 

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Have frequent snacks instead of large meals, eat 5 to 6 meals a day.
  • Eat what you feel like, when you feel like it, without forcing yourself to eat in a way that’s really uncomfortable.
  • Eat more on days when you have an appetite and feel well.
  • Do not limit how much you eat.
  • Choose high-calorie foods at this time, such as nuts, avocados, seeds, cooked cereals, and dried fruits. Use additional olive oil in salads.
  • Keep healthy snacks within easy reach so you can have something whenever you feel like it. Eg. crackers and small boxes of raisins.
  • Bamboo cutlery is recommended to counter the metallic taste in mouth after chemo treatment. While eating meals (eg. red meat) with metal forks and spoons may have electrochemical reactions that worsen the metallic taste feeling, non-metallic bamboo cutlery can help to restore the dignity of mealtime to cancer patients by neutralizing the unpleasant metal taste.
  • Try adding strong flavorings or seasonings with pleasant flavor such as sauces, sweet marinade, spices or onions to your foods.
  • Change your routine by eating in a different place, vary your diet by trying new foods and recipes etc to try increase appetite.
  • Avoid surroundings with strong odors and cooking smells that may put you off eating. It might help to prepare meals ahead and freeze them for days you don’t feel like cooking.

Recommended Read: 121 Thoughtful Gift Ideas for Patients Undergoing Chemotherapy
 
Mary Anderson, oral chemotherapy registered nurse clinician with the Norton Cancer Institute, shares her tips in video below on what to do if a chemo patient does not have appetite to eat.
 

 
 

7. Skin Changes such as Dry Skin, Skin Rash, and Sun Sensitivity.

Chemotherapy can damage skin cells in a way that makes them dry, while other possible side effects affecting the skin include irritation, itching, crack, redness, rash, peeling, or nail changes.

Skin may also be more sensitive to or easily irritated by the sun during chemotherapy treatment.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Use moisturising soap, such as Alra all vegetable unscented mild soap specially formulated for cleansing sensitive skin during / after radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
  • When you have dry and itchy skin, take an oatmeal bath to get relief.
  • After showering, gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel rather than rubbing it.
  • Use a moisturising lotion or cream, such as Jeans moisturizing cream that is highly recommended by cancer patients who went through radiation therapy and chemo.
  • Wear loose, non-restricting clothing. Choose cotton fabric instead of rough wool.
  • Wash your clothing in mild detergent for people with sensitive skin.
  • Use an electric razor to minimize cuts and irritation when shaving.
  • If your skin become sensitive to sunlight during chemo, stay out of direct sunlight, and shield yourself from the sun’s rays with sunscreen.

8. Hair Loss and Eyelash Fall Out

Hair loss (alopecia) is a common side effect of many chemo drugs. Hair follicles are damaged by chemotherapy treatment because the medicines affect cells that are growing quickly.

Patient may begin to lose hair within a few days or 2 to 3 weeks after chemo starts, with the scalp may feel tender and dry too. Hair normally grows back once chemotherapy is finished.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Wash your hair and scalp with mild moisturizing shampoos and conditioners.
  • Sleep on a cotton or satin pillowcase to help decrease pulling on, and losing hair.
  • After chemo, brush or comb hair gently using a hairbrush or comb with soft bristles.
  • Avoid using hair spray, oils, hair products with harsh chemicals (eg. hair dyes), and heat sources on your hair (eg. hair dryers, curling irons, rollers).
  • Research shows cold cap therapy, whereby the patient wears a cooling cap filled with cold liquid during chemo sessions, may reduce or prevent hair loss.
     

  • If you prefer to leave your head bare, use sunscreen to protect your scalp from the sun, and wear a light cotton turban or beanie to bed if you are cold at night.
  • You may wish to cut your hair before it starts falling out.
  • Plan ahead to get a wig before your hair is gone, and consider choosing a wig before chemo starts.
  • Chemo scarves and headwear are good alternatives to a wig.
  • Avoid using false eyelashes as its adhesive glue can grab onto the eyelashes you have left and pull them out.
  • Check out these tips by Cancer Research UK on how to define your eyes when you have lost your eyelashes during cancer treatment.

9. Neuropathy – Numbness, Tingling, and Pain.

One chemotherapy side effect is peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disorder that can cause pain and numbness, when chemo drugs affect the nerves that connect the spinal cord to muscles, skin, and internal organs.

Common areas affected by chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy include hands/fingers, feet/toes, back, and chest. The painful neuropathy side effects also include aching in the muscles and joints, stomach pains, and headaches. This type of pain can last long after treatment ends.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Extreme temperature changes may worsen neuropathy symptoms, so wear warm clothing like gloves and socks to keep your hands and feet warm in cold weather.
  • Soak your hands and feet in warm water to relieve symptoms.
  • When washing dishes or taking a bath or shower, do not let the water get too hot.
  • Prescription medicines to relieve pain, such as oral pills and topical creams, depending on the type of nerve problems.
  • Research shows Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) device provides a beneficial adjunct for the treatment of cancer pain and Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN).
  • For neuropathy in the hands and fingers, consider exercise kit like Theraputty, light Gripmaster hand exerciser, and finger strengthener.
  • Acupuncture as a restorative therapy for cancer patients and cancer survivors. This treatment therapy is used at many leading edge cancer center such as the MD Anderson Cancer Center and Dana Farber Institute. Acupuncture treatment is used in the management of chemo side effects like pain, insomnia, hot flashes, anxiety, fatigue, as well as nausea and vomiting.

Watch the following video to understand more about acupuncture, and how this complementary therapy helped an ovarian cancer patient on the neuropathy in her feet and hands.
 

 

10. Chemo Brain

Chemotherapy can cause chemo brain, which refers to cognitive impairment. The signs and symptoms of chemo brain may include memory lapses, trouble to think clearly, difficulty to concentrate, etc.

These effects usually go away after chemotherapy is finished, however sometimes these side effects may last long after treatment is finished.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Use a daily planner to help you manage and keep track of tasks, to-do items, appointments, etc.
  • Write down anything you need to remember, e.g. where you parked the car.
  • Use your cell phone to set reminders.
  • Track your medications and use a weekly pill box.
  • Don’t try to multi-task, focus on one thing at a time, says the American Cancer Society.
  • Keep your brain active, eg. do Sudoku or crosswords.
  • Learn something new. You could take a class or take up a new hobby.
  • Doctor may suggest cognitive exercises that help to retrain memory and improve concentration.

In video below, Dr. Karen Meneses shares her tips and advice on coping with chemo brain.


 

11. Mood Changes, Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia.

Cancer treatments and chemo drugs can directly impact the way people feel emotionally, with common side effects include sleep disruption, and many symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Chemo patient may experience mood swings by feeling peaceful and balanced one day, yet stressed and worried on another.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Use aromatherapy as supportive care, with the therapeutic use of natural essential oils from plants can help to relax and lift mood.
  • Relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation may also help stop these side effects.
  • Prescribed anti-depressant drugs such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), the predecessor of SSNRIs.
  • Research published in JAMA Psychiatry medical journal shows 10,000-Lux light therapy can improve depression. Consider light therapy lamp like Verilux HappyLight that mimics sunlight with a light intensity of 10,000 Lux and brings UV-free daylight indoors. This can improve the mood of cancer patients and help to sleep better.
  • Counselling can reduce anxiety.
  • If you love reading and have the energy to read during chemo to pass time, consider inspirational and humorous books written by cancer survivors to lift your spirit.

12. Libido and Sexual Changes

Chemo can cause you to feel physically tired and lose interest in sex, while anxiety and emotional stress may reduce your libido too.

The side effects of chemotherapy on your sex life normally will not last long, and they won’t affect your sex life permanently.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Talk to your partner about how you feel, and let your partner understand the reasons why your libido has changed.
  • Cancer Research UK recommends to use a sexual protection barrier (such as condoms or dental dams) if you have sex during chemo treatment, as it is unknown for sure whether chemo drugs can be passed on through semen or secretions from the vagina.
  • Chemo can reduce production of estrogen and vaginal lubrication, which may cause vaginal dryness and painful intercourse. Women with this experience may consider vaginal lubricant or moisturising gel.

Dr. David Cathcart elaborates more on sexual side effects of chemotherapy in video below.
 

 

13. Fertility Problems

Chemo drugs may lower the number of sperm produced and reduce their ability to move, while some chemotherapy drugs can cause damage to a woman’s eggs.

Remedies and recommendations:

  • Before starting treatment, men may consider sperm banking to freeze sperm for future use, and women may consider store eggs (ova) or embryos — if infertility may be a result of treatment.
  • Chemo drugs can harm an unborn baby, so women should plan to avoid pregnancy during chemotherapy treatment. Doctor may recommend to use contraception during and after chemo.

 

Other General Chemotherapy Side Effects Remedies and Tips

  • Ask for, and accept, offers of support or assistance from family, neighbours, and friends. They can help with housework, cooking, driving, childcare etc to save your energy and give you more time to rest — especially when your chemo side effects kick in.
  • Complementary therapies are sometimes used with conventional medical treatments. Besides acupuncture and aromatherapy, massage therapy has been proven to be safe and effective reducing chemotherapy side effects like pain, fatigue, and anxiety.
  • Natural medicinal mushroom extract Active Hexose Correlated Compound (AHCC) is widely used in over 700 hospitals and clinics in Japan, mainly for cancer patients. Clinical studies and user reviews show AHCC is beneficial to improve the chemo patient’s quality of life, as shared by Dr. Aaron Katz in video below.

    Recommended read: AHCC Boost Body Immune System and Reduce Chemo Side Effects


 
 

Do you have any chemotherapy tips? Leave comments and share your thoughts!

Chemotherapy Side Effects Remedies Tips

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