Meds and you

Updated 11 December 2013

How to beat cancer medication side effects

Modern cancer treatment can include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, supportive medication and pain medication. Here's how to deal with the side effects.


Modern cancer treatment uses a wide variety of medications. These drugs include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, supportive medication and pain medication.

All drugs have potential side effects, especially the powerful agents used in treating cancer, a particularly aggressive condition. Different combinations of drugs are used for different cancers. Each combination may have its own unique set of side effects.

Here are some tips to help deal with this treatment and its side effects.

1. Be inquisitive
Information is vital for you to manage your disease and its treatment. Your treating oncologist or oncology nurse should spend time explaining to you what medications you are getting, as well as what you might experience during your treatment. Printed information sheets or videos on your medications may be used to help prepare you and advise you on how to manage any side-effects. Ask questions of your doctor or oncology nurse, and make sure you have a good understanding of the treatment and its consequences before you start your therapy. 

Know who to contact in case of a problem. 

Have a family member or close friend with you when the treatment is explained, to deal with the information overload.

2. Be proactive
Get nutritional advice on what diet to follow for your type of cancer and its treatment. A dietician may help clarify whether certain food or drinks may aggravate or help reduce your side effects. 

Make sure you are not taking supplements that may interfere with the efficacy of your treatment or worsen the side effects. Report any severe side effect immediately to your medical team. Bringing problems promptly to their attention is an important part of managing these often taxing side effects. Prompt intervention will often prevent a major complication. 

Be especially vigilant in the early stages of your treatment: once you know what to expect, you can plan ahead.

3. Be compliant
Follow the professional advice you are given. Take your medication on time and as directed. If you are encouraged to take fluids or medications to help reduce the potential toxicity of a particular drug, try to meet your targets. 

Modern anti-nauseants have had a huge impact on the quality of life in patients on chemotherapy. If they're taken correctly, very few patients have to suffer nausea and vomiting. Take note of what side effects your doctor or nurse has asked you to report to them and do so. This can make all the difference to your experience of the treatment

4. Be prepared

If you know your treatment may cause hair loss, talk to your hairdresser about a shorter cut prior to the treatment, so lessening the impact psychologically. Getting a wig fitted early on is important for many patients.
If you know your treatment may cause constipation or diarrhoea, make sure you have the correct medication to manage it early on, and not wait until it becomes a crisis.
Try to plan your daily life around your treatment. If you experience low energy levels at a particular time during your treatment cycle, then try not to have too much on your plate at that time. Work colleagues and family need to be included and recruited into helping out at those times.

5. Be choosy
Cancer patients are inundated with advice from multiple sources outside their medical team – family, friends, work colleagues and everyone else. Make sure that any other medications or treatments you are considering, will not clash with your current therapy. Always check any complementary or alternative therapies with your professionals. Just because a product is labelled ‘natural’ does not mean it lacks side effects or will not interact with your treatment (remember that a large percentage of chemotherapy comes directly from plants and so, too, qualifies to be called a 'natural' product).

6. Be positive
A positive frame of mind helps in dealing with the treatment. If you are depressed or down, talk to your team. Think about counselling or a support group. Sometimes an anti-depressant will be useful in keeping you in the right frame of mind to stick to your programme.

7. Be a team player
Working as a team is vital in your dealing with the oncology treatment. This team should comprise you and your close family, your oncologist, your general practitioner and all the support personnel – psychologist, dietician and oncology nurses. Building good relationships with clear communication channels will make all the difference.

(Dr David Eedes, Health24, February 2009)


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