10 Tips for Coping With Chemotherapy

  • Comforting Hand
    Chemotherapy Is a Challenging Process
    Chemotherapy—or chemo—affects everyone differently. It depends on the type and stage of cancer, your general health before starting chemotherapy, and the specific drug and dose. While there are countless drugs and combinations, there are a few common side effects and issues. Use these tips to help you cope with some of the challenges of chemotherapy.

  • Woman Sleeping
    1. Adjust Your Lifestyle to Cope With Fatigue
    Fatigue is one of the most common problems people experience. If you are very tired, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Fatigue can result from more than just the chemotherapy drugs. Anemia, infection and dehydration can also cause fatigue. If your doctor rules out other causes, you can manage fatigue with lifestyle changes. Light exercise, such as yoga or walking can help. Make sure you are eating right, adjusting your work or activity schedule, and resting as well.

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    2. Eat Smaller Meals and Consider Meds to Cope With Nausea
    Nausea is another common side effect. Sometimes, even thinking about a treatment causes nausea. This is anticipatory nausea and it’s very real. Your doctor can prescribe specific anti-nausea drugs to help prevent and treat chemo-related nausea. You can help yourself by eating small, light meals. Many people find starches like potatoes and pasta most appealing. Try not to let your stomach get totally empty and avoid strong smells. Call your doctor if you’re vomiting and can’t keep liquids down.

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    3. Extra Fluids and Easy-to-Digest Foods Help You Cope With Diarrhea
    Some chemotherapy drugs cause diarrhea. If diarrhea lasts for more than a day or two, call your doctor. You should also call if the diarrhea is bloody or if you have a fever or other symptoms. Manage diarrhea by eating small meals that are easy to digest. Try broths, bananas, applesauce, crackers, Jell-O, noodles, eggs, and yogurt. Avoid raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, and greasy, fried foods. You also need to drink extra fluids to avoid dehydration.

  • Woman Drinking Water
    4. Take Steps to Limit Constipation
    Constipation can be a problem with some chemotherapy drugs, pain medicines, and anti-nausea medicines. Talk to your doctor about constipation. It’s important to drink 8 to 10 glasses of water each day. Fruit juices, such as prune or apple juice, and warm liquids are also good choices. Increase the fiber in your diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole-grain breads and cereals. Getting regular activity will also help.

  • Woman with bald head
    5. Consider a Wig to Cope With Hair Loss
    Hair loss can be one of the most upsetting side effects of chemotherapy. Most, but not all chemotherapy treatments cause hair loss. Talk with your doctor before starting your treatment to find out if hair loss is likely. If so, consider visiting a wig specialist before treatment starts. Insurance often covers wigs. You may also want to buy colorful scarves and start cutting your hair short. After hair loss, remember sunscreen or hats if you go uncovered.

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    6. Take Steps to Avoid Infections
    Chemotherapy lowers your white blood cell (WBC) count—the cells that fight infection. This makes you more susceptible to infections on chemotherapy. Try to avoid large crowds of people and always practice proper hand washing. Wash raw fruits and vegetables, avoid people who are sick, and have someone else clean up after pets. Ask your doctor when to call about a fever. In general, call or find medical attention for a temperature over 100.5 degrees.

  • Woman with sore jaw
    7. Use a Mouth Rinse to Cope With Mouth and Throat Sores
    Chemotherapy can cause painful mouth and throat sores. Call your doctor if you develop mouth sores or have painful swallowing. A prescription mouth rinse is available that will coat and numb the sores to ease swallowing. Your doctor may also suggest a baking soda and salt rinse. You can try using a straw and sucking ice chips. Cold and soft or liquid dairy products can help coat your mouth. Avoid mouthwashes containing alcohol and acidic foods.

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    8. Avoid Strong Smells to Limit Appetite Changes or Loss
    Chemotherapy can change the way you perceive tastes and smells, causing appetite changes or loss. You may also be very sensitive to strong smells. But it’s vital to keep your strength with proper nutrition. Work with your cancer treatment team to make a meal plan. Eat what’s appealing and try eating small meals throughout the day. If possible, have someone else cook to avoid the cooking smells. Eat cold or warm food, not hot. Use plastic utensils if food tastes like metal.

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    9. Use Reminders and Rely on Loved Ones to Help You Cope With Memory Problems
    People who have memory or thinking problems on chemotherapy call it “chemo brain” or “chemo fog.” Chemotherapy can affect your ability to remember things, reason, concentrate, and understand things. It can help to have a reliable daily routine, use calendars and alarms, and keep a notepad handy. Have someone join you for appointments and explain memory lapses to people. Puzzles, word games, and reading can also help keep your brain active.

  • Diverse group of women running charity race
    10. Get Emotional Support
    Your emotional health during chemotherapy is just as important as your physical health. Chemotherapy is stressful. It can disrupt your personal life, work, and relationships. Ask your doctor about support groups in your area or online. People in these groups are going through the same things you are. They can relate to your anger, sadness, anxiety or frustration. Individual counseling can also help you work through your emotions.

10 Tips for Coping With Chemotherapy

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. Coping with Chemotherapy. University of California San Francisco Medical Center. https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/coping_with_chemotherapy/
  2. Cancer Treatment - Side Effects. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects
  3. Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects. Breastcancer.org. http://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/chemotherapy/side_effects
  4. Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/chemotherapy/index
  5. What about chemo side effects? American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/chemotherapy/whatitishowithe...
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 8
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.