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Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects

Simple tips for coping with the nausea, fatigue, and hair loss that can accompany chemotherapy.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Chemotherapy just may be more notorious for its side effects than for its life-saving potential. Fortunately, after years of experience with chemo drugs, doctors and patients have found ways to manage common side effects. A few are outlined below.

Though chemotherapy drugs can cause dozens of unwelcome side effects, the trinity that usually comes to mind is:

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  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • hair loss

Fighting Chemotherapy Fatigue -- And Winning

Fatigue: One survey found that 76% of people treated for various forms of cancer frequently felt fatigued -- for some the kind of persistent exhaustion and weakness that makes it hard to do everyday activities.

Making matters worse, chemotherapy can decrease red blood cell counts, causing anemia, which in turn causes fatigue.

While drugs can stimulate the production of red blood cells, the problem may be more complex, says James Rigas, MD, director of the Comprehensive Thoracic Oncology Program at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, N.H.

For some patients, "it's not just anemia. Correcting their anemia is not making their fatigue go away," he tells WebMD.

No matter what the cause, you don't have to let fatigue get the best of you. To cope, try attending to the highest priorities in your life first. Don't waste energy on unimportant things -- and be sure to accept help from family, friends, and neighbors.

And get plenty of rest during your treatment, though being too inactive can make things worse, says the American Cancer Society. An exercise program can help some, but check with your doctor to see if that's right for you.

No Nausea During Chemotherapy? It's Possible

Nausea is second among the dreaded trinity of chemotherapy side effects, with the most commonly used chemotherapy drugs causing nausea and vomiting 60% to 90% of the time.

The arsenal for tackling chemo-induced nausea can include:

Anti-nausea drugs. In recent years the choice of such medications has grown, and whether taken before chemotherapy by IV or as a pill, they can control nausea and vomiting very well. Most people experience relief for the first 24 hours after chemotherapy and about 45% for the first five to seven days of treatment.

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