Fighting cancer is one of the toughest things you ever have to do. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and it can drain your mind and body.
The disease, the treatments and the side effects from your medications can all take a toll physically as well as emotionally. Here are some steps you can take to ease these stressors.
Maintaining your bone health
Losing bone density is common as people age. Cells that help rebuild bone aren’t replaced at the same rate, causing bones to become thin and full of tiny holes. This condition, called osteoporosis, is the most common type of bone disease. Some chemotherapy drugs can reduce calcium levels in the body.
Here are tips that can help reduce your risk of bone loss and promote strong, healthy bones during cancer treatment.
- Early detection: A bone density scan can determine if bone loss is occurring before, during and after cancer treatment.
- Calcium: This mineral maintains bone health and strength. Calcium decreases as we age, so it's important to replace it in foods or with a supplement. Calcium-rich foods include cheese, yogurt and broccoli, or choose from calcium-fortified foods such as orange juice, milk and pasta.
- Vitamin D: This vitamin helps your body absorb and hold on to calcium. It is created within the skin using energy from sunlight and can also be found in vitamin D-fortified foods like milk.
- Bisphosphonates: These prescription medications slow the rate of bone loss and may even help promote new bone growth.
- Exercise: Weight-bearing physical activity (such as walking, dancing, stair climbing and jumping rope) stimulates production of bone-forming cells and also helps build muscles, which provide stability.
Healthy bowel habits
Some types of cancer, as well as some cancer therapies and medications, can significantly affect your bowel functions. This might impact your daily routine or overall quality of life.
The good news is that diarrhoea, constipation and other bowel-related side effects can be relieved when you take proactive steps to look after the health of your bowels. Here are some tips to help:
- Drink water – aim to drink at least eight glasses of fluid per day
- Reduce caffeine – reducing caffeine (coffee, cola) can help you to maintain your bowel health
- Take your medications – take your prescribed medicines, as directed by your doctor, ensuring you follow the correct advice on how to prevent constipation when taking certain medicine
- Eat the right foods - include foods in your diet that help you open your bowels, such as prunes, prune juice or high-fibre cereal. Products like Metamucil ™ can be helpful, too.
- Exercise daily - regular physical activity helps keep the digestive tract active, and talk to your doctor or exercise physiologist about how much physical activity is best for you.
Dealing with tiredness
Fatigue, or tiredness, is the most common symptom experienced by people with cancer.
It’s important to tell your doctor if you’re feeling tired, as it is definitely treatable.
Cancer-related tiredness can impact your daily life, so try these simple tips to boost your energy levels:
- Exercise regularly – even a 20-minute walk can help you to relax
- Limit naps if possible – keep any naps under 30 minutes, and do something active right after waking
- Avoid stimulants – like alcohol, caffeine, and chocolate in the evening
- Switch off TV and devices one hour before bed – listen to music, or take a warm bath instead
- Keep a regular sleep schedule – even on weekends
- Change rooms if you’re having trouble sleeping – if you haven’t fallen asleep in 15 minutes, go to another room and avoid mental stimulation and return to bed when you feel sleepy
Coping and managing hair loss
If you’re taking chemotherapy drugs in addition to your radiation therapy, you may lose some hair. The amount of hair you lose depends on the type and dosage of the drug you take.
Radiation therapy can also cause you to lose hair – but this only occurs in the specific area being treated.
It’s important to be aware of the potential risk of hair loss so you can prepare emotionally as well as physically.
Hair loss usually begins 7-21 days after treatment and starts to grow back after treatment ends. Some people start getting hair back during treatment, though the new hair might look or feel different. The time it takes to re-grow hair can vary from 3-12 months.
Here are some tips to help you cope and deal with hair loss:
- Cut your hair – many people like to cut their hair short or shave it once they notice hair loss
- Use mild shampoos – as well as soft brushes
- Avoid blow drying – as well as curling irons and other hot appliances
- Keep your scalp clean – moisturise regularly to prevent skin problems
- Protect your scalp – keep it covered from the sun with hats, wigs or sunscreen
- Be creative - use loose-fitting colourful scarves, turbans or hats
- Use a wig – speak to your medical team about options and costs
- Attend a Look Good Feel better session – the team of wonderful volunteers will help connect you with the right hair stylists
Dealing with nausea
Nausea and/or vomiting are very common side effects of chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy.
You may be able to take a medication to help prevent nausea and vomiting. Your doctor or nurse can recommend an appropriate treatment which also includes healthy lifestyle advice.
Unfortunately, despite medications and nutritional support, some people still have some nausea.
Alternate therapies like acupuncture can be useful in some cases, and our helpful GenesisCare staff can arrange a referral for you.
Taking care of your mouth and teeth
Chemotherapy drugs can cause sores in the mouth and throat, as well as dryness, irritation or bleeding.
Mouth sores can become infected, so good oral hygiene is important. If you do notice mouth sores, it’s important to tell your medical team.
Here are some tips to help you keep your mouth, gums and throat healthy during cancer treatment:
- Check your mouth every day – look for trouble spots
- Brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush – brush after every meal and at bedtime
- Floss – talk to your doctor about flossing
- Avoid commercial mouthwashes – especially those that contain a large amount of salt or alcohol
- Eat soft, moist foods – and avoid ones that irritate your mouth
- Stay hydrated – dry mouth is often the cause of other dental problems and can be avoided by chewing sugar-free gum, staying hydrated and using a saliva substitute, if needed
Lymphoedema is a collection of fluid, usually in the arm or leg, which often develops from surgery, radiation, infection or trauma.
It can be difficult to treat, because the protein in the fluid acts as a ‘magnet’ for more swelling, serving as a food source for infections.
Normally, the same amount of lymphatic fluid goes into and out of the arm or leg. With lymphoedema, though, the amount of fluid going in is greater than the amount that can go out. This is due to the damage to the “transport system.”
Lymphoedema occurs most commonly in women who have had breast surgery with removal of lymph nodes, followed by radiation therapy.
It can appear weeks, months or even years after the initial treatment. It also may occur following injury or infection.
For most people, lymphoedema becomes a chronic condition which needs to be controlled on an ongoing basis.
You’ll be given a treatment plan based on evaluation by a lymphoedema therapist, usually someone with a massage or physiotherapy health care background.
Your treatment plan may include one or more of the following elements:
- Skin care – to avoid injury and infection, good hygiene and moisturising properly is very important
- Massage – ‘manual lymph draining’ is a precise and gentle form of massage that helps mobilize the fluid and direct it to other pathways, and ‘soft tissue mobilisation’ is a type of massage used to release scar tissue and other tightness that might be contributing to the swelling
- Exercise – stretching exercises can help loosen up the tissues in the region or help move the fluid out (you’ll be shown how to do these exercises)
- Bandaging – a precise technique that uses cotton low-stretch bandages to apply constant pressure on the limb (bandaging is usually done in combination with other methods)
- Compression garments – these are elastic fabric garments similar to a girdle or support stocking that applies pressure to the arm or leg to help move fluid out and keep new fluid from collecting
- Medicine – sometimes antibiotics or other medications are prescribed as part of your lymphoedema treatment plan.
Sexuality and cancer
It is usually safe to have sex during cancer treatment, unless your doctor tells you not to – however, you may experience some challenges. All types of cancer treatments can cause a variety of changes related to sexuality.
Everyone is different, and while some people notice changes in all areas (for example, desire, arousal, orgasm, resolution) others experience none.
Some of the challenges you may face include:
- Loss of sexual desire – this can be common for many people with cancer
- Erection problems – are also a common problem for men
- Dryness and vaginal pain – can be common in women
Most people are still able to have an orgasm – even if cancer treatment interferes with erections or vaginal lubrication, or involves removing some parts of the pelvic organs. However, needing more time or stimulation to reach orgasm is normal.
There are remedies to help you manage these changes, though finding the right solution can take time. This is because the changes can be caused by both psychological and physical factors.
In some cases, changes related to your treatments can be long term or permanent. It’s important to be prepared for this, so always speak with your medical team to learn about the changes you may face from your cancer and treatments.
This can help you to be better prepared for any possible changes. Remember, your treatment team are here to help, and don’t be afraid to talk about this issue with them and find out how you can seek help if necessary.
If you are having sex during chemotherapy, you may wish to use barrier protection, such as condoms or dental dams (for oral sex), since chemotherapy chemicals can be found in semen or vaginal fluid.
Radiation therapy from an external machine doesn’t make you radioactive or endanger your partner in any way.
If you are undergoing brachytherapy, though, you may need to stop sexual activity briefly until the strongest radiation has left the body.
Sex might also be a problem if you have bleeding in the genital area after a recent surgery – or, if your immune system is much weakened. Always speak to your doctor if you have any concerns or questions
Sometimes, you may have difficulty sleeping. Some people have trouble falling asleep, while others can’t stay asleep. Many people are simply unable to get enough rest.
This may be a problem you’ve had your whole life, or it may be new. The causes could be anxiety or depression – or, perhaps you’re just not feeling well.
Sleeping troubles can also be the result of a medical condition, like a breathing problem or side effects from medicine. If you aren’t sleeping well, talk with your doctor or nurse – you may be able to get need a referral for additional help sleeping.
Here are some tips for getting the best night’s sleep possible:
- Avoid using electronic devices in bed – or watching television while in bed
- Keep daytime naps short – aim for less than 30 minutes
- Limit caffeine intake – reduce tea, coffee and alcohol
- Exercise regularly – but, unless it is a restorative yoga class limit exercise within two hours of bedtime
It’s common for people with a cancer diagnosis, and their support groups, to experience anxiety and different levels of stress. These feelings come from demands and pressures of the recent the past – as well as the anticipated demands and pressures of the future.
Because stress can weaken your immune system and make it harder for you to remain healthy, try these relaxation tips:
- Practice slow, deep breathing
- Practice meditation or yoga
- Get more sleep
- Start an exercise routine
- Try a new hobby
Don’t be afraid to talk to your healthcare professional about your feelings and the amount of stress in your life.
Let your medical team know if fear is keeping you from making decisions about your treatment – or if you’re having conflict in your relationships.
Counselling, or connecting with other people going through a cancer journey, can also help. There are support groups or one-on-one connections, and your GenesisCare team can put you in touch with these people.