You’re probably so focused on getting well, you hardly have time to think about how to ease the side effects from your treatments like hair loss or changes in your appetite. But looking and feeling your best during treatment is important to your healing, too.
Managing Nutrition and Weight
You and your doctor will decide what treatment is best for you, and it may include chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or targeted therapy. And it could have side effects, including changes in your appetite or sense of taste, nausea, and weight loss or weight gain.
Making good food choices during treatment can help you feel better, tolerate side effects, lower your chances of infection, and even heal faster. One important way to do this is to eat a variety of foods so you get the nutrients you need, including:
- Antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E)
- Carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains)
- Healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats)
- Proteins (fish, poultry, lean red meat, eggs, low-fat dairy products)
- Vitamins and minerals
Plant-based foods are a good source of vitamins and minerals. You should try to eat at least 2.5 cups of colorful fruits and vegetables daily, including citrus. Try new foods, too, like beans, and keep high-fat foods from animals to a minimum.
Snacking throughout the day can help you get extra protein and calories to heal and keep your weight stable. Try to keep protein-rich snacks like yogurt, eggs, or cheese and crackers with you during the day. If you have side effects like sore throat or diarrhea, avoid snacking on acidic foods that can make them worse.
Your treatment program may make you feel extra tired, and exercise probably seems impossible. But even doing a small amount can have tons of benefits.
It can help you stay strong, improve your appetite and energy, and help you feel less stressed or depressed. Talk with your doctor about what exercise makes sense for you, and pay attention to how you feel when moving your body.
When your doctor approves it, and you’re up for it, even adding 30 minutes of walking to your day can make a big difference in how you feel.
Looking Your Best
Thinking about how you look during cancer treatment doesn’t make you shallow. Some medications can change your appearance and that can affect how you feel about yourself. There are many ways to cope with these physical side effects so you can feel more confident.
The American Cancer Society sponsors a nationwide program called Look Good Feel Better that teaches beauty techniques to women with all kinds of cancer. Their volunteers give you tips on makeup, skin, and nails, and help you with wigs and accessories if you have hair loss. You can find programs near you on the Look Good Feel Better website.
There are other organizations that sell wigs and hair accessories specifically for women undergoing cancer treatment. Some, like Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths and Lolly’s Locks, also provide free wigs for cancer patients. Your doctor or the American Cancer Society can provide you with your local options.
Talk to your doctor about your specific treatment plan and whether it will make you lose your hair. If you do, they should be able to write a prescription for a hair prosthesis so your insurance company will cover the cost of a wig. Your doctor and your hairdresser might also have tips for keeping your hair while you go through treatment.
Your skin might also change during treatment. It could get more dry or sensitive, or may take on a yellowish tinge. Using mild, fragrance-free products and hypoallergenic moisturizers can help. Chemotherapy and radiation can make you more likely to sunburn, so be sure to protect your skin with sunblock (at least SPF 30 with broad spectrum) and a hat anytime you go outside.
Overcoming Sexual Side Effects
If you’re getting chemotherapy for cervical cancer, you may notice a loss of libido or other sexual side effects like vaginal dryness during and after treatment. This is because chemotherapy causes your ovaries to suddenly stop producing estrogen. Your doctor can recommend estrogen replacement therapy or a topical estrogen cream.
Radiation therapy in your pelvic area can damage your ovaries and cause a change in your vaginal lining. Talk to your doctor about your treatment and whether they can recommend any specific strategies for preventing long-term side effects.
Talking to your treatment team, your partner, and other cancer survivors can help you deal with the sexual changes you’re experiencing and figure out ways to cope. In some cases, other forms of intimacy may feel better than intercourse, so talk to your partner about new ways to connect.
Finally, it can be hard to always stay positive while you’re going through treatment. But finding small ways to keep your spirits up can make a big difference. Keep a gratitude journal to focus on the encouraging things in your life. And surround yourself with supportive friends and family, too.
It’s also normal and expected to have negative emotions. Allow yourself space to feel and express them.
Consider joining a support group, whether in person or online, to connect with other women in the same situation. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition has an online community, and other organizations like CancerCare offer face-to-face, telephone, and online support.
You may also want to think about individual and/or family counseling to cope with your physical and emotional changes. Ask your treatment team about recommendations and local resources.