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Managing Ovarian Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on May 04, 2021

Ovarian cancer treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy can cause different side effects. There are many ways to manage cancer treatment side effects, so talk to your cancer doctor or nurses for help with any that you might have.

Pain

Surgery to remove your ovaries (oophorectomy) may cause short-term pain and tenderness afterward. If you can’t sleep and eat well, your body may take longer to heal, so let your doctor know if pain keeps you awake or causes you to lose your appetite. Chemotherapy may cause nerve damage that leads to neuropathy pain in your hands and feet.

What you can do: Don’t wear tight clothes or shoes that press against painful areas of your body. Your doctor can prescribe medicine to control your pain as you recover from surgery. For longer-lasting or neuropathy pain, they can prescribe short-term steroids, pain-numbing skin patches, anti-seizure medicine, and antidepressants. For severe pain, they may prescribe opioids. Alternative and complementary therapies like acupuncture, guided imagery, biofeedback, or electrical nerve stimulation are nondrug treatments for pain.

Fatigue

Chemo and other cancer medications, radiation, or surgery can cause serious fatigue. Pain after ovary removal surgery or anemia can also make you feel bone-tired.

What you can do: Plan times in your day for rest. It’s OK to nap for an hour each day, but not more, because it could keep you from sleeping at night. Eat foods rich in protein for energy. Get plenty of fluids, but skip drinks with caffeine or alcohol that could disrupt your sleep.

Nausea and appetite changes

Chemo for ovarian cancer may cause nausea, vomiting, or appetite loss. Get help to treat these side effects before they cause malnutrition or dehydration.

What you can do: Sip water or fluids like tea or ginger ale throughout the day. Skip greasy, fried, or spicy foods, or any foods with strong smells that make you queasy. Your doctor can prescribe anti-nausea medicine if you need it. Acupuncture also helps control nausea or vomiting from chemo.

GI issues

Constipation and diarrhea are common GI problems during ovarian cancer treatment.

What you can do: Eat foods rich in fiber, drink fluids, and get some daily exercise to stay regular if you’re constipated. Diarrhea can dehydrate you and sap your potassium and sodium levels. Drink plenty of fluids, eat smaller meals, and avoid dairy or caffeine.

If your bottom feels sore from frequent diarrhea or wiping, soothe the area with a washcloth soaked in warm water or sit in some shallow, warm water.

Don’t take over-the-counter medicines for constipation or diarrhea until you’ve asked your nurse if they’re safe to take during your cancer treatment.

Anemia

Anemia is a drop in red blood cells, which deliver oxygen throughout your body. Chemo or radiation for ovarian cancer can lower the amount of red blood cells made by your bone marrow. You may feel very tired, lightheaded, weak, or pale. You may have headaches too.

What you can do: Eat more foods rich in protein and iron. Try to balance activities with time for rest to conserve your energy. Talk to your doctor or nurse to see if you need to take iron supplements. For more severe anemia, you may need prescription medications or a blood transfusion.

Chemo brain

Chemo may make you feel mentally foggy or fuzzy. You can’t concentrate or remember where you put your keys. Usually, brain fog clears up once your treatment is complete.

What you can do: Write down important dates or information in a notebook or put them on your smartphone. If you feel up to it, a little exercise can help with your mental focus. Talk to your doctor if chemo brain gets out of hand. Stimulant medications like methylphenidate (Ritalin) may help with your symptoms.

Hair loss

Hair loss is a common side effect of chemo. It can be an especially challenging one to deal with emotionally. You may lose hair in patches or all over your head and body. Chemo destroys both cancerous and healthy cells like hair follicles, so hair falls out. After chemo is complete, your hair should grow back.

What you can do: Some women choose to cut off their hair before chemo. Use mild, gentle shampoos. Avoid hot curling irons or rollers to protect your hair. If your hair falls out, you can try wigs, hats, or head wraps to cover your head. If you go outside without a head covering, apply sunscreen to protect your scalp.

Early menopause

Surgery to remove your ovaries can cause early menopause, also called surgical menopause. Side effects include hot flashes, night sweats, crankiness, brain fog or memory problems, vaginal dryness, and an overactive bladder. Chemo for ovarian cancer may trigger early menopause too, but this may be temporary in some women.

What you can do:Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may ease most early menopause symptoms. Vaginal estrogen creams or lubricants can prevent vaginal dryness. Antidepressants can be used to treat sweats and hot flashes.

Infections

Chemo can wipe out most of the infection-fighting white blood cells your body makes too. You’re more vulnerable to cold or flu bugs, as well as painful infections from cuts and scrapes.

What you can do: Avoid sick people or crowds where you could pick up an infection. Wash your hands often and bathe daily to stay clean. Be careful when you trim your nails, so you don’t cut yourself. Get plenty of rest and fluids each day.

Sexual side effects

Early menopause and cancer treatments may cause low libido or vaginal dryness, make you too tired for sex, or cause nausea and hair loss that make you feel anything but sexy.

Radiation treatments in your pelvic area can lower estrogen levels. This can crash your libido, or may weaken vaginal muscles, narrow your vagina, or cause vaginal dryness or burning.

What you can do: Use water-soluble lubes or vaginal estrogen creams to make intercourse more comfortable. Plan to have sex during times when you feel more energy. Take time to rest before and after sex.

Talk about your sexual side effects with your partner. You can enjoy intimacy with cuddling or kissing, not just intercourse. Talk with your health care team about exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles or vaginal dilators to help make intercourse easier and more satisfying.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition: “Side Effects of Treatment for Ovarian Cancer.”

National Cancer Institute: “Side Effects of Cancer Treatment,” “Pain in People With Cancer,” “Fatigue and Cancer Treatment,” “Nausea and Vomiting in People with Cancer,” “Nausea and Vomiting Related to Cancer Treatment (PDQ) -- Patient Version,” “Diarrhea and Cancer Treatment,” “Anemia and Cancer Treatment,” “Sexual Health Issues in Women With Cancer.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “Surgery for Ovarian Cancer.”

Moffitt Cancer Center: “What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy for Ovarian Cancer?”

Cancer Council Victoria: “Ovarian Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Managing Peripheral Neuropathy.”

MD Anderson Cancer Center: “Chemobrain,” “Chemotherapy and Hair Loss.”

Ovarian Cancer Action: “Early Menopause.”

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