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Cancer care side effects


If you’re having side effects, we’ll help you find ways to feel better.

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Cancer treatments can cause side effects. A side effect is when you have a reaction to a treatment for a disease or disorder. Side effects are different for each person. They also vary depending on the type of treatment or medicine you’re taking.

Common side effects for cancer treatment are listed below. If you’re having side effects, talk with your care team. They’ll work with you to find ways to reduce your side effects and help you feel better.


Common side effects

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  • Sometimes radiation and chemotherapy can make you feel dizzy. This can lead to falling. Simple things like having good lighting in your home and getting up slowly after lying down can help prevent falls. If you fall, call your doctor, a family member or friend. 

  • If cancer treatments make you get constipated, changes in your diet can help. Eat a lot of fruit, vegetables, and whole grain breads and cereals. Drink at least eight to 10 glasses of water a day. Exercise a little every day to help stimulate bowel activity.

    Diarrhea means having three or more bowel movements a day that are soft or liquid. To manage diarrhea, try the following:

    • Eat warm food rather than hot or cold food.
    • Eat six or more small meals instead of large meals.
    • Drink 12 glasses of fluid a day if your doctor approves.
    • If certain foods make your diarrhea worse, don’t eat them.
    • Keep your rectal area clean and dry. 
  • Chemotherapy can make you more likely to get dental cavities. So can radiation treatment of the head and neck. Because of this, your doctor may suggest special mouth care, including daily fluoride treatments.

    This involves applying two types of fluoride gel in mouth trays. Your care team will give you information about this and answer any questions you may have.

  • Many patients with cancer feel tired all the time. This can be from the treatment, changing sleep patterns, pain, worry, depression and stress. Things you can try to feel better include:

    • Rest more often.
    • Drink up to 10 glasses of fluid a day, especially water.
    • Try to exercise if you’re up to it.
    • Work part-time if you can’t work full-time.
    • Eat a healthy diet.
    • Get help with childcare, meal preparation and housework.
  • Hair loss is a possible side effect of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the scalp. The treatment shrinks the hair follicles, which makes hair fall out. Hair loss ranges from thinning to total baldness. The good news is that hair loss is usually temporary.


  • Your bone marrow makes three different types of blood cells. They fight infection, carry oxygen, clot blood and promote healing. Some cancer drugs and radiation affect the bone marrow and cause a decrease in the number of blood cells.

    It’s normal for your blood cell and platelet counts to drop during cancer treatment. Low red blood cells (anemia) can make you feel tired, weak, chilly, dizzy or short of breath. A low platelet count may make you bruise or bleed easily.

    This is temporary. Your body is working hard to make new cells and repair tissues. Things you can do to make yourself feel better are listed below.  

    Low red blood cell count:

    • Get plenty of rest and save your energy. Alternate rest periods with periods of activity.
    • Elevate your head with several pillows if you’re short of breath.
    • Move slowly to avoid getting dizzy. When you get up in the morning, sit on the side of the bed for a while before standing. If you continue to feel dizzy, tell your doctor or nurse.
    • Add more green leafy vegetables, liver and red meats (if you can) to your diet.
    • Stay warm. Wear an extra sweater or jacket if you feel chilly.

    Low platelet count:

    • Try not to get cut, scratched, burned or bruised.
    • Don’t strain to have a bowel movement. If needed, your doctor can prescribe a stool softener.
    • When blood is taken or injections are given, apply gentle pressure over the site for a few minutes to make sure it doesn’t bleed.
    • Don’t take over-the-counter pain medication like aspirin or aspirin-containing medication. They may make you bleed longer. Don’t take ibuprofen or any medication without checking with your doctor or nurse. 
    • Don’t drink alcohol unless your doctor says it’s alright.
    • Avoid contact sports and other activities that might result in injury.
  • During and after chemotherapy and radiation treatment, some patients may have an upset stomach and/or vomit. For many, this is temporary. It goes away as the body adjusts to treatment or as treatment is completed.

  • Cancer treatment may lower your appetite for food or change how food tastes or smells. If you’re not hungry or find it difficult to eat, talk with your care team. Eating healthy, high-nutrient foods can help you stay strong and feel better.

    Also, some cancer patients notice a change in how food tastes. It can have no taste or not taste the way it did before. If this happens to you, try different foods to find the ones that taste best to you. 

  • Sometimes chemotherapy or radiation to the throat or chest cause swallowing problems. To help make eating easier, try the following:

    • Dunk food in coffee, tea or milk.
    • Eat soft foods, like scrambled eggs, puddings and cream soups.
    • Choose soft breads and avoid foods with seeds.
    • Drink lots of liquids.
    • Suck on ice chips.
    • Don’t eat foods that are highly acidic, like tomatoes, oranges and grapefruit.
    • Don’t use mouthwashes because they may dry out your mouth.
  • Radiation therapy can make the skin around the treatment area sensitive. The following tips can help keep problems to a minimum:

    • Keep the area clean, dry and open. 
    • Use cool water and mild soap for cleaning. 
    • Wear loose, comfortable clothing.
    • Try to not get injured and avoid sunlight and wind.
    • Ask your care team what types of moisturizers should be used.

    If areas of your skin are irritated by cancer treatment, open-wet dressings might help. They cool your skin and help reduce redness, itching, burning and draining. Ask your care team about open-wet dressings and if they’re right for you.  


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