When you have cancer, the symptoms you feel usually depend on where the cancer is in your body, how big it is, and the organs it affects. The treatments you get can change how you feel, too. Though the disease is different for everyone, some symptoms are very common, including fatigue, pain, and nausea.
No matter which side effects you feel, you don’t have to just live with them. Talk to your doctor about medicines and other ways you can handle your symptoms and feel better.
Everyone gets tired from time to time, but cancer fatigue can make you too exhausted to do anything -- even lift yourself up off the couch. It lasts longer than normal tiredness, and it doesn't get better with rest.
To feel more awake and energized:
- Don't push yourself. Only do as much as you can handle. Ask friends and family to help you with basic chores, like shopping, cooking, or cleaning, so you can save your energy for the things that matter.
- Rest. Take 20-minute naps or breaks during the day to regain your strength.
- Exercise. Moving actually gives you more energy than staying on the couch. Get in the habit of taking a daily walk or bike ride, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. You'll get stronger and feel more alert.
- Eat well. Focus on a balanced diet with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit. Add more protein from eggs, fish, beans, and meat to your meals and snacks. If you don’t feel hungry or it’s hard to eat, talk to a dietitian to see how you can get the nutrients you need.
- Check your medicines. Some drugs you take to treat cancer can make you sleepy. Ask your doctor if you can change medicines or adjust the dose.
- Try yoga or acupuncture. Studies have shown that they may help relieve cancer fatigue.
Cancer pain ranges from mild to severe. It can last for a short time or stick around for a while. When you hurt, ask your doctor for relief right away, before the pain gets worse.
To ease mild pain, you can try:
- Heating pads or ice packs to help dull aches
- Massage or acupuncture
- Deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques
- Biofeedback, a practice that helps you control your breathing, heart rate, and other processes in your body. It can change how you perceive your pain.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or NSAIDs, (such as ibuprofen or naproxen). Talk with your doctor to make sure you can safely take these medications.
To manage steadier or more severe pain, your doctor might recommend one or more of these prescription medicines:
Nausea and Vomiting
About 8 out of 10 people who are treated for cancer have nausea and vomiting, which are often caused by chemotherapy and radiation. These symptoms are tough to live with, and vomiting a lot can leave you dehydrated.
Drugs called antiemetics control nausea. You take them at certain times of the day or whenever you feel sick. While your stomach is upset, eat bland foods like dry crackers, toast, and rice. Cook smaller, light meals, and avoid foods that make you feel sick. If you have trouble keeping food down, call your doctor.
Cancer and treatments like chemotherapy can lower the amount of healthy red blood cells in your body and lead to anemia. That means your blood can’t carry enough oxygen to all the tissues in your body. Anemia causes symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, fast heartbeat, dizziness, and pale skin.
If you have low iron levels, one way to fight anemia is to eat more iron-rich foods, like dark green leafy vegetables, beans, sweet potatoes, and meat. Or you can take an iron supplement. Other options are to get a blood transfusion or take medicine that helps your body make more red blood cells.
Palliative care doesn't treat cancer, but it does focus on relieving symptoms to help you feel better and do the things you need and want to do. You can get palliative care together with cancer treatment, or on its own when you've finished your therapy. If your doctors suggest palliative care, it doesn't mean they’ve given up on your treatment -- only that they want to make you more comfortable.
Your cancer doctor, nurse, palliative care physicians and other members of your cancer team will give you palliative treatments. You can get this care at a hospital, in your home, or as part of a hospice program.