Side effects of cancer treatment

Treatment side effects vary depending on the type of cancer you had, its stage and the type of treatment you were given. The changes can be both physical and emotional. Some side effects resolve quickly; others can take weeks, months or even years to improve.

Your body will cope with the treatment and recovery in its own way. Try not to compare yourself to others. You should talk to your doctor or nurse about possible side effects before your treatment begins. It is important to know what to watch out for or report, and who to contact out of hours if you have immediate concerns.

On this page you will find details about the following common side effects:

For more information on the specific side effects of each cancer treatment please refer to the Understanding Cancer Treatment booklet series.

Fatigue

Feeling tired and lacking energy (fatigue) is the most common and often, debilitating side effect of cancer treatment. Fatigue can include feeling exhausted, drowsy, confused or impatient. You may have a heavy feeling in your limbs, or find it difficult to do daily activities.

Fatigue can appear suddenly and rest may not relieve it. You might still feel tired for weeks or months after a treatment cycle ends.

Tips for managing fatigue:

  • Ask for help. Get a friend to help with school pick-ups, shopping or running errands.
  • Plan your day so you can do the activities that are most important to you at the time of day when you have the most energy.
  • Have realistic expectations. As soon as treatment finishes, don’t expect to be able to instantly do all the things you used to do before the cancer. Your body is still recovering and it will take time for your energy levels to return.
  • Do some regular light exercise, which can boost energy levels and make you feel less tired. A short walk may help to restore your energy without exhausting you. Talk to your health care team about suitable activities.
  • Eat nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day.

Hair loss

Many people having chemotherapy and radiotherapy worry about hair loss. Some people lose all their hair quickly, others lose it after several treatments, or others may only lose a little hair or none at all.

When hair loss does occur, it usually starts 2–3 weeks after the first treatment. Your scalp may feel hot, itchy, tender or tingly. You may also lose hair from your eyebrows, eyelashes, arms, legs, chest and pubic region. Hair usually grows back when chemotherapy is completed.

Losing hair can make you feel physically unattractive, vulnerable or sad. It’s natural to feel this way. Talking to your medical team may be helpful.

Tips for managing hair loss:

  • Use a mild shampoo like baby shampoo.
  • If you want to use lotion on your head, use sorbolene. Check with your nurse before using any other hair or skin care products.
  • Wear a light cotton turban or beanie to bed if you are cold at night, or to collect hair.
  • Use a cotton, polyester or satin pillowcase – nylon can irritate your scalp. If you prefer to leave your head bare, protect it against sunburn and the cold.
  • Limit the use of hair dryers, rollers and harsh products.
  • Wear a wig, toupee, hat, scarf or turban. Do whatever feels the most comfortable and gives you the most confidence.

Cancer Council offers a Wig and Turban service for all cancer patients free of charge. Submit an enquiry online or phone 13 11 20 to find out more.

For more information, read our hair loss fact sheet.

Lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is swelling that occurs in soft tissue, most commonly in the arm or leg. Lymphoedema can occur after lymph nodes have been removed during surgery, or damaged by infection, injury or other treatment such as radiotherapy.

The likelihood of developing lymphoedema after treatment depends on the extent of the surgery, your cancer treatment and your body weight. Lymphoedema may be permanent,
but it can usually be managed, especially if treated early. Signs of lymphoedema include persistent swelling, as well as new feelings of heaviness, tightness, aches, or pins and needles.

In many hospitals, a lymphoedema specialist will assess you before you have surgery. Some hospitals have specialist physiotherapists who can work with you to reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema. You can do simple exercises such as shoulder rolls, elbow bends and hand clenching.

Swelling can be reduced by wearing a professionally-fitted elastic sleeve or by massage from a trained lymphoedema drainage therapist, physiotherapist, nurse or occupational therapist.Long periods of physical inactivity, such as travelling, may contribute to lymphoedema. Talk to your doctor or specialist about wearing a compression sleeve during air, rail or car travel.

Appetite Changes

Your appetite may change when you are going through cancer treatment. Sometimes you may not feel hungry, or you may not enjoy the foods you used to like. You may crave foods you don’t usually eat. Some drugs temporarily change the taste of foods. Your sense of taste should return to normal after treatment ends, but it may take some time. Good nutrition during cancer treatment helps you remain as well as possible and get the most from your treatment. You may be advised to maintain adequate nutrition to complement how well the treatment is working. Tips for managing appetite changes:

  • If the taste of certain types of food has changed, don’t force yourself to eat them. Prepare meals between treatments and freeze them for the days you don’t feel like cooking. Have small, frequent snacks instead of large meals. Speak to the hospital dietician for advice about eating.

For more information on appetite changes, please refer to the Nutrition and Cancer booklet.

Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea

Chemotherapy can make you feel sick (nauseated) or cause you to vomit. Your medical oncologist will tell you if the drugs you are given are likely to cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea. Nausea usually appear a few hours after treatment. The feeling may last for many hours and be accompanied by vomiting or retching. Sometimes nausea lasts for days after treatment.

Tips for managing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea:

  • Try to keep your fluids up so that you don’t get dehydrated.
  • If you aren’t able to keep fluids down, contact your doctor immediately.
  • Try drinking fizzy drinks such as soda water or dry ginger ale.
  • If you wake up feeling sick, eat a dry biscuit or a slice of toast rather than skipping food altogether or forcing yourself to have a full meal.

Sexuality, intimacy and fertility

Cancer can affect your sexuality in physical and emotional ways. The impact of these changes depends on many factors, such as treatment and side effects, your self confidence, and if you have a partner. Although sexual intercourse may not always be possible, closeness and sharing can still be part of your relationship.

If you are able to have sex, you may be advised to use certain types of contraception to protect your partner or avoid pregnancy for a certain period of time. Your doctor will talk to you about the precautions to take. They will also tell you if treatment will affect your fertility permanently or temporarily. If having children is important to you, talk to your doctor before starting treatment.

Tips for managing changes to sexuality, intimacy and fertility:

  • Plan sexual activity for the time of day when your pain is lowest. To be most effective, pain medication should be taken shortly before sex.
  • Talk to your partner if you have little or no interest in sex (low libido). They may be able to help you get in the mood. They may also need to accept that you may not be able to get in the mood for some time.
  • Ask your doctor if any medications can help with sexual problems, such as difficulties getting or maintaining an erection.
  • Physical activity can stimulate sexual desire by increasing energy and lifting your mood

For more information view our Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer or Fertility and Cancer booklet.