Cancer is often treated with medicines that destroy the cancer cells (chemotherapy). These medicines may slow cancer growth and prevent or stop the spread of cancer. Chemotherapy also can affect healthy cells and cause side effects.
Most people can work and do their normal activities after and even during chemotherapy, but they may need to limit their schedules. Side effects of chemotherapy include nausea and vomiting, pain, and being tired. Some medicines can cause diarrhea or mouth sores. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to treat the side effects. Your doctor will advise you to take extra care to prevent illnesses and infections, because chemotherapy weakens your natural defenses.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
How can you care for yourself at home?
Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You may get medicine for nausea and vomiting if you have these side effects.
Nausea and vomiting
A light meal or snack before chemotherapy may help prevent nausea. If you do have nausea during your treatment, try eating earlier—at least an hour or two before your next treatment. After your treatment, you may want to wait one or more hours before you eat again.
Drink fluids with your meals and an hour before or after meals.
After vomiting has stopped for 1 hour, sip a rehydration drink, such as Powerade or Gatorade.
Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Choose water and other caffeine-free clear liquids until you feel better. Try clear fluids, such as apple or grape juice mixed to half strength with water, rehydration drinks, weak tea with sugar, clear broth, and gelatin dessert. Do not drink citrus juices. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
When you are feeling better, begin eating clear soups and mild foods until all symptoms are gone for 12 to 48 hours. Other good choices include dry toast, crackers, cooked cereal, and gelatin dessert, such as Jell-O.
Check with your doctor to see if you can take an over-the-counter medicine, such as meclizine (Antivert) or dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), to help with nausea.
If your doctor prescribes medicines to control pain, take them as directed. Often your doctor will have you take these medicines regularly to keep your pain under control. Medicine for pain may cause side effects. Let your doctor know if you feel constipated, have trouble urinating, or have nausea.
Try using relaxation exercises to lower your anxiety and stress, which can increase pain.
Keep track of your pain so you can tell your doctor what your pain is like. Write down where you feel pain, how long it lasts, what seems to bring it on, and how it feels. Also note what makes the pain feel better or worse.
If you have mouth pain, your doctor may prescribe a special mouth rinse that can help relieve the pain.
Weakness and feeling tired
Get extra rest. Plan ahead so you can take breaks or naps.
Save your energy for the most important things you want to do.
Try to get some exercise, such as walking, but stop if you are too tired.
Eat a balanced diet. Do not skip meals, especially breakfast.
Try to lower your stress and workload. Relaxation exercises, music therapy, and prayer are ways to lower stress and help you relax.
Ask family and friends to help with home chores and other tasks.
To prevent infections
Wash your hands often during the day, especially before you eat and after you use the bathroom.
Stay away from people who have illnesses that you might catch, such as the flu or a cold.
Try to stay out of crowds.
Clean cuts and scrapes right away with warm water and soap. Clean them daily until they are healed.
Keep track of your temperature, if your doctor recommends it. You can do this by taking your temperature at regular times and writing it down.
Use a mild shampoo and a soft hair brush.
Use a low setting on your hair dryer. Do not color or perm your hair.
Have your hair cut short. It will look thicker and fuller, and it will not be such a shock if you lose hair.
Use sunscreen and a hat, scarf, or turban to protect your scalp from the sun.
When should you call for help?
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
You pass maroon or very bloody stools.
You have a severe headache or changes in your vision.
You passed out (lost consciousness).
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
You are short of breath.
You have new or severe pain.
You have chills, a fever, or a cough.
Your symptoms, such as nausea or feeling tired, get worse.
Your stools are black and tarlike or have streaks of blood.
You have severe diarrhea that is not getting better.
You have unusual bruising or bleeding.
Your pain is not controlled with your medicine.
You are dizzy or lightheaded, or you feel like you may faint.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
Care instructions adapted under license by Kaiser Permanente. This care instruction is for use with your licensed healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.
The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.