Coping With Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy is designed to rid your body of cancer. But as the treatment kills cancer cells, it can harm healthy tissues too, causing a rush of unwelcome side effects.

Here we explain why you get side effects, which ones are most common and what you can do about them to feel better as you fight cancer.

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Why Do I Get Side Effects From Chemotherapy?

Side effects depend on myriad factors, according to the National Cancer Institute, such as:

  • The type of cancer you have and how advanced it is
  • The type of chemotherapy and how aggressive it is
  • How healthy you were before chemo
  • Any underlying health problems you have

Chemotherapy affects people in different ways. Your side effects won’t be the same as a friend’s, for example, even if you both had the same cancer treatment. What’s more, some side effects may bother you less — or more — as your chemo continues.

A patient survey published in Supportive Cancer Care found 71 percent of breast cancer patients on anthracycline and cyclophosphamide-based regimens experienced nausea during treatment. However, breast and ovarian cancer patients undergoing chemo became less troubled by nausea and more disturbed by sleep troubles as their treatment progressed, according to a 2017 presentation before the European Society for Medical Oncology.

There’s also a mind-over-matter element when it comes to side effects. A recent study reported in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found that merely expecting to have a side effect made it more than twice as likely to appear.

What Are The Most Common Side Effects?

Chemotherapy can cause more than two dozen different side effects, as the National Cancer Institute notes. The most common one is fatigue, where you feel tuckered out. Other side effects include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Anemia
  • Infections
  • Mouth sores
  • Trouble sleeping

Most side effects go away once you’ve stopped chemotherapy.

What Works to Cope With Chemotherapy Side Effects?

Whether you’re going to start chemo shortly or you’re in the midst of treatment now, these strategies can help you cope with common side effects.


Make sure you’re getting plenty of calories and protein daily to maintain your weight. Extra protein can help repair tissues damaged by chemo.

Expect your doctor to test your blood regularly to make sure your red blood cells don’t drop too low. They may prescribe a medicine to increase your red blood cell production or suggest that you take an iron supplement to strengthen your blood.


Be sure to get at least eight hours of sleep a night, and don’t be shy about taking naps during the day when you feel pooped. Shorter 10- to 15-minute naps are better than longer ones. A quick walk can give you an energy boost.


Wash your hands often and thoroughly and carry hand sanitizer when you’re out and about. Avoid exposing yourself to germs. Skip large gatherings and clear of sick people. If you have a pet, ask a friend or loved one to clean the litter box or pick up Fido’s waste.

Nausea and vomiting

Your doctor can prescribe medicines to take before or after chemotherapy to prevent nausea and vomiting. Acupuncture and acupressure also may lessen these side effects.

Also try making dietary changes. Eat smaller meals, choose bland foods that are easy to digest and avoid pungent foods or drinks.

Sleeping problems

Hack your bedtime routine. Limit screen time starting at least an hour before you go to bed. Make sure your bedroom is dark and free of distractions.

If a bedtime routine doesn’t help, cognitive behavioral therapy or relaxation therapy can teach you restful habits to get a good night’s sleep. Ask your doctor to recommend a practitioner.

Mouth sores

Mouth sores usually appear five to 14 days after chemo begins. Try sipping water, sucking on ice chips, or chewing sugar-free gum throughout the day to keep your mouth moist.

Good oral hygiene can help. Use a soft toothbrush and brush after every meal and before bedtime. Opt for soft foods, and skip ones that are sharp, crunchy, or spicy.

To learn more visit the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center or call 412-647-2811 to make an appointment with one of our cancer experts.

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Side Effects of Cancer Treatment. National Institutes of Health. Link

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Chemotherapy and You. National Institutes of Health. Link

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Chemotherapy to Treat Cancer. National Institutes of Health. Link

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Side Effects of Chemotherapy. Link

European Society of Medical Oncology. Change of Patient Perceptions of Chemotherapy Side Effects in Breast and Ovarian Cancer Patients. Link

Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. Cancer Treatment Side Effects: A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship Between Response Expectancies and Experience. Link

Supportive Cancer Care. Defining Optimal Control of Chemotherapy-Induced Nausea and Vomiting—Based on Patients' Experience. Link

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.