Coping with Side Effects

Shortness of Breath
Skin Reactions
Throat and Mouth Soreness
Infection and Bleeding
Gastrointestinal Issues
Hair Loss
Nervous System Changes
Anxiety or Depression

Key Points

  • Side effects from treatment are very common.
  • There are things you can do ease these side effects.
  • Talking to your doctor as soon as you have a side effect is the best way to safely manage your side effects.
  • Ask your doctor to refer you to a palliative care specialist. This is a type of doctor that specializes in side effect management.

Take action

Your care team wants you to be able to enjoy your life and do the things you love. Talk to your doctors or nurses about your side effects as soon as possible.

Track your side effects using the Medication Tracker or the Treatment Organizer from the toolkit.

Below are some common side effects you might experience.

Side EffectStrategies for Coping


  • Lingering feeling of tiredness
  • Most common symptom
  • Some medications
  • Plenty of rest, with short naps
  • Light to moderate physical activity
  • Ask others to help with tasks
  • Good nutrition

Shortness of Breath

  • Call your doctor right away if you have tightness in your chest, pain, fever or trouble breathing
  • Can be caused by the cancer, infection or treatment
  • Call your doctor!
  • Follow instructions for taking your medication
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Practice breathing techniques

Skin Reactions

  • Might include rash, dryness, scaling, pain, redness and peeling
  • Use gentle skin care products that contain lanolin or aloe
  • Do not use any skin products immediately before radiation treatment
  • Protect yourself from the sun
  • Call your doctor if you have a rash or anything else that concerns you

Throat and Mouth Soreness

  • Might include difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and mouth sores
  • Eat soft, moist foods
  • Avoid spicy, greasy and sharp foods
  • Suck on hard candy or popsicles
  • Ask your doctor about sucking on ice chips before and after chemo
  • Gargle with one teaspoon of table salt or baking soda dissolved in one cup of warm water to clean your mouth

Infection and Bleeding

  • Treatment can make you more prone to infections and bleeding
  • Call your doctor immediately if you suspect an infection or you can’t stop bleeding
  • Wash your hands well!
  • Avoid crowds or people that are sick
  • Keep your mouth very clean (gargle with baking soda and warm water)
  • Avoid flowers and plants (because they may carry mold) or handling animal waste (like cleaning litter boxes)
  • Use a soft toothbrush
  • Use an electric shaver instead of a razor

Gastrointestinal Issues

  • Might include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation
  • Learn more about what to eat in the nutrition section
  • Loss of appetite:
    • Eat several small meals if you aren’t hungry for big meals
    • Add olive oil, milk or yogurt to increase calories and protein in a meal
    • Take a walk before you eat
  • Nausea or Vomiting:
    • Some medications
    • Bland foods
    • Peppermint tea, ginger tea or ginger ale
  • Diarrhea:
    • Avoid high fiber foods that are hard to digest (like beans or raw vegetables)
    • Bland foods
    • Small meals, with plenty of water between meals
  • Constipation:
    • Drink plenty of non-caffeinated fluids
    • Eat high fiber foods
    • Exercise

Hair Loss

  • Common after radiation and some chemotherapy
  • Use mild shampoos, soft hairbrushes and low heat on your hair
  • Buy a wig (sometimes called a scalp prosthesis and covered under some insurance policies)
  • Sometimes cutting your hair short or buzzing it off is easier to deal with than watching your hair fall out
  • Wear a hat or scarf

Nervous System Changes

  • Some chemotherapy drugs can cause pain, tingling, burning, weakness or numbness in the hands and feet (called peripheral neuropathy).
  • Some people experience what many survivors call “chemobrain” which includes forgetfulness, lack of concentration, difficulty finding the right word and difficulty multitasking.
  • Be careful grabbing sharp or hot objects
  • Use handrails
  • Wear shoes with rubber soles and remove throw rugs to prevent falls
  • Get gentle massage
  • Take notes during appointments (or have a support person with you)
  • Do brain puzzles
  • Make lists

Anxiety or Depression

  • Ongoing sad mood for most of the day
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the time
  • Uncontrolled worry
  • Trouble solving problems and focusing thoughts
  • Irritability (grouchy or short-tempered)
  • Call your doctor immediately if you have thoughts of suicide
  • Try exercising
  • Speak with a mental health professional like a social worker or psychologist. Some specialize in treating people with cancer.
  • Spend time with family and friends
  • Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises
  • Use prayer or other types of spiritual support if it helps

When should I call my doctor?