Meet our experts
For this topic, Cancer Care Operations Manager, Nurse Evelyn Wallace, and her team of Dedicated Cancer Nurses at AXA PPP, answer your questions about coping with the side effects of chemotherapy and how to stay healthy while in treatment.
Here we’ve rounded up the best of the team’s support and insights around the most commonly asked questions:
What are the side effects of chemotherapy?
While chemotherapy is one of the most common treatments for cancer, it can be a difficult experience for patients. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells to make sure they cannot spread further, but it cannot distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous cells. This means treatment can destroy healthy cells, especially those that divide rapidly (like those in hair follicles and the digestive tract) which can cause patients to lose their hair and make them feel sick.
Side effects will depend on the medication given and often vary from person to person. Common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, a sore mouth, diarrhoea, weakness, changes to your blood counts, loss of appetite, weight loss or gain, hair loss and neuropathy.
Should I change my diet during treatment?
- Make sure you take on enough calories. Weight loss is common during chemotherapy for a number of reasons, such as sickness and fatigue. Making sure you are consuming enough calories is important. If you find you are losing a lot of weight, eat what you feel like eating and don’t worry too much about “healthy eating”. Check in with your specialist as they may want to refer you to a dietician.
- Eat little and often, and add calories if you need to. If your appetite is reduced, it can be a good idea to add high-calorie foods to soups and drinks, such as milk or cream to soup, grated cheese over beans. There are also high calorie drinks you can take to supplement your diet.
- Try spicy Asian or Mediterranean foods. Some chemotherapy drugs can alter your taste perception, so bland foods tend not to taste very nice. Try spicing things up (literally) as more flavoursome foods, like an aromatic curry, may be more palatable.
- Juice fruit and veg, if you need to. A healthy diet should include a high amount of fruit and vegetables and having them in the form of juices is fine. It is said that it is usually better to eat fruit in particular in their natural form as putting them through a juicer can change their structure and reduce the vitamin content. However, the main point is to include them regularly in your diet – if that’s mainly in the form of juice, you will still get the majority of the benefit from them.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Even though you’re in treatment, the rules of a good diet still apply, so try to keep a balance and ensure you maintain a good vitamin intake through green vegetables, fish, white meat (while reducing red meat) and eggs. Foods with high fibre content – such as bran-heavy cereals, wholemeal bread, fruit and vegetables – can help to prevent constipation (which can be a side effect of some medications, especially pain killers). It’s better to avoid lots of processed foods, such as takeaways, although understandably it’s difficult to prepare fresh foods when you're feeling unwell.
I’m tired all the time, but then can’t sleep at night.
- Mindfulness might give your brain a break . Mindfulness is all about focusing your attention on the present moment – your thoughts, emotions, sights, sounds, feelings, and bodily sensations. It helps you concentrate on the here-and-now, rather than worrying about the past or future. This can help you to calm your mind and body, clearing your head to think differently about a situation.
- Make getting a good night’s sleep a priority and take naps if you need them. Whether it is the side effects of chemotherapy, or worry and anxiety about your diagnosis, cancer can keep you awake at night. But sleep really boosts your physical and psychological health.
If you’re struggling to sleep, simple changes can help. Do some light exercise (see above). Develop a bedtime routine. Create a calm space. Jot down your worries. Have a snack.
Can I exercise during chemotherapy?
- Check with your doctor before doing any exercise. Speak to your consultant if you want to take part in any physical activities as some treatments will drastically reduce your immune system and exposure to general public environments, such as gyms and swimming pools, are best avoided.
- Listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs. The levels and types of exercise will depend on how fit you are and the treatment you are receiving . Take each day as it comes – some weeks you will be able to do less, some weeks more. Try to maintain a steady pace and keep it regular.
- Do low intensity activities. Many people find yoga, pilates, tai chi, qi qong and walking are good activities to improve sleep, increase appetite and reduce stress, all common issues during treatment.
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