5 cancer-related side effects and how to manage them

January 05, 2024 | by Endeavor Health

Cancer treatments continue to improve, providing better survival rates and patient outcomes. Yet, challenging side effects often remain a hardship for many.

Whether the side effects are related to gastrointestinal distress, fatigue or problems sleeping, it’s best to stay on top of them with early intervention to avoid worsening issues.

  • Diarrhea. “Early intervention is the key to managing many side effects, especially something like diarrhea which is quite common for patients undergoing some chemotherapy treatments,” said Endeavor Health oncologist Gary Kay, MD.

    Dr. Kay’s team reaches out to patients with preemptive phone calls during treatment and offers dietary advice — clear liquids, avoid dairy products — and suggestions for over-the-counter medicines like Imodium for those with diarrhea.

  • Dehydration. “We want to make sure they don’t get dehydrated, and if they do, we need to bring them in and put them on IV hydration,” said Dr. Kay. “The more we can do to make things more tolerable for patients, the more likely it is that will be able to stay on the appropriate and potentially curative doses of chemotherapy.”

  • Fatigue. While fatigue is a more subjective side effect it is also very common and one that can play a large role in day-to-day quality of life. “There is evidence-based medicine that suggests regular physical exercise can help combat cancer- or treatment-induced fatigue,” said Endeavor Health oncologist Hollis Walker, MD, who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers.

    Some people once they have a cancer diagnosis will “assume the sick role,” added Dr. Walker, who encourages patients to keep moving. “It may seem counterintuitive when someone is feeling tired, but we know that moving roughly 30 minutes a day helps patients with both physical and mental health benefits.”

    For breast cancer and prostate cancer patients undergoing hormone therapy, weight-bearing exercise is particularly valuable to help maintain strong bones. Remaining active also helps patients maintain a sense of some control, which can be very beneficial as they go through treatment, suggested Dr. Walker.

  • Nausea is another very common side effect that can lead to greater problems if not managed early on. “Dehydration is a bigger concern than even taking in enough calories for most patients,” said Dr. Kay, who again encourages patients to reach out to their clinical team if nausea is making it difficult for them to get through the day and eat and drink.

    “We now have so many good anti-nausea medications for patients.” said Dr. Kay. Medical cannabis also helps some patients deal with nausea and other side effects.

  • Peripheral neuropathy is another relatively common side effect from some chemotherapy medications and there are now medications that can help, said Dr. Walker. Physical therapy can sometimes also help patients deal with neuropathy and related issues.

“It’s just so important to be open and candid with your provider and tell them about any side effects sooner rather than later,” said Dr. Walker.

“I don’t want patients sitting at home and wondering if they should call the office when they have a problem; if you’re concerned, you should call,” said Dr. Kay.

Learn more about cancer support services at Endeavor Health Cancer Institute.

NorthShore University HealthSystem, Swedish Hospital, Northwest Community Healthcare and Edward-Elmhurst Health are now united under one name, Endeavor Health. We’re setting a new standard for healthcare that’s focused on you, because your best health is our endeavor. Learn more.

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