It’s no secret: Chemotherapy treatment can trigger a whole host of unpleasant side effects for cancer patients, such as nausea, fatigue and depression—all of which make life at home or in the hospital difficult.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce or alleviate the side effects and make treatment more manageable. We asked several care providers in the University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care program to share tips and strategies for patients seeking relief.
“Each patient has their own treatment plan and they all handle their chemo in a different way,” said Joanie Aasen, the infusion center manager at the Masonic Cancer Clinic in the University of Minnesota Health Clinics and Surgery Center. “But there are things that everyone can do to stay healthy and ease their side effects.”
Here are some of the methods that our providers have found to be effective.
Nausea is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy, and can be one of the most unpleasant, too. Doctors prescribe anti-nausea medications, but even with the medication, many patients still experience upset stomachs and a reduced appetite.
Eating several small meals throughout the day and sitting upright after a meal can help fight nausea, according to Darcy Malard-Johnson, the oncology program manager for Fairview Pharmacy Services.
“Many patients do better throughout the day if they eat five or six smaller meals and snacks,” she said. Remaining in an upright position after eating will help improve your digestion, she said. Very hot and very cold foods and drinks can also be unpleasant for people receiving chemotherapy because of an increased sensitivity in their mouths, Malard-Johnson added. For the same reason, patients may want to avoid spicy foods. Foods with a strong odor may also trigger nausea, she said.
Melissa Kittock, a chemotherapy infusion nurse at the Masonic Cancer Clinic, advises patients to use herbs such as peppermint or ginger in addition to anti-nausea medication for nausea relief.
It’s important that each cancer patient maintain his or her weight during chemotherapy. For that reason, Kittock also encourages her patients to eat anything that sounds appetizing to them and doesn’t lead to indigestion or nausea.
“They get a free ticket to eat whatever they’re able to eat,” Kittock said. “If they want Cheetos and ice cream — that’s fine by us. We just want them to eat.”
Chemotherapy can wreak havoc on the digestive track, often causing diarrhea, constipation or both for many patients. Here again, a careful diet can be the best defense against these side effects.
Kittock often recommends a “BRAT-style” nutrition plan to reduce diarrhea. BRAT stands for “bananas, rice, apple sauce and toast”—bland foods that are gentle on the stomach. Because diarrhea often leads to dehydration, Malard-Johnson said patients should drink 8-12 cups of clear liquid a day, as long as the patient doesn’t have any liquid or fluid restrictions.
Both care providers suggested eating foods high in fiber to alleviate constipation. Some patients also want to use an over-the-counter stool softener or laxative, but Malard-Johnson recommends that you speak with a member of your care team before starting one of those.
Fatigue (extreme tiredness) is a common side effect of chemotherapy. Patients may feel weak, worn out, heavy or slow. Often, it causes cancer patients to lose interest in normal, daily activities. So, how can cancer patients maintain their energy levels?
“Exercise is actually the best method for combating fatigue,” Kittock said.
Patients should exercise every day—even for a short period. Kittock recommends yoga and walking, but any movement is good, she said.
Eating boosts energy levels throughout the day and is crucial when it comes to battling the effects of fatigue, Malard-Johnson said.
“Don’t try to do too much,” she said. “It is OK to ask for help. If you know the second day after receiving chemo is the hardest, consider asking for a volunteer to bring you dinner, run errands or perform another helpful task.”
Severe fatigue can often occur in conjunction with depression and other mental health issues. It’s not uncommon for patients undergoing chemotherapy to become depressed, and when patients are depressed, eating and activity can become even more difficult.
“Depression can really feed fatigue,” Kittock said. “Self-care and mental health care are really important.”
For that reason, both Kittock and Malard-Johnson believe it is important for patients to care for themselves emotionally as well as physically during their treatment.“It’s always okay to ask others for help,” Kittock said. “A good diet and good exercise are important, but they’re not everything. We need good people in our lives, too.”