Coping with the physical impact of cancer

This page covers some of the more common side effects of different treatments and of cancer itself. These symptoms will depend on the type of cancer. Not all or necessarily any will be experienced by everyone. It is important that you tell your doctor or nurse if you have any side effects that worry you.

It is also important to know that some side effects are temporary and will disappear when treatment ends, others may be more long lasting and require specialist management from the treating team.

Will cancer treatment make me tired?

Fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer treatment. Fatigue due to cancer treatment is different from everyday tiredness. It can occur suddenly. Unlike everyday tiredness, it is not necessarily brought on by exercise or a long day’s activity. Resting does not always help relieve the fatigue.

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What is fatigue and how might it affect me?

  • Fatigue can affect how you think as well as how you feel.
  • You may need more sleep.
  • You may experience physical, emotional and/or mental exhaustion.
  • Your body, especially your arms and legs, may feel heavy.
  • You may have less desire to do normal activities, like eating or shopping.
  • You may find it hard to concentrate or think clearly.

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What causes fatigue?

Cancer treatment-related fatigue is due to a range of causes.

It is common for chemotherapy to cause anaemia. This means there are fewer red blood cells to carry oxygen through your body. Anaemia can also be caused by radiotherapy and sometimes through loss of blood during surgery.

Other things related to your illness can make you feel tired such as not sleeping well, feeling stressed, feeling depressed, coping with infections, some drugs, not exercising, and not eating properly. Treatments are available for some of these causes of fatigue, so it is important to talk to your doctor.

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Are there ways to manage my fatigue?

Over the last few years emerging evidence supports that fatigue can be best managed by participating in an exercise program. You may like to participate in a Cancer Council WA Life Now exercise program that is designed especially for cancer patients. This program is provided by a qualified exercise physiologist or physiotherapist who carefully monitors your condition and recommends adjustments to the intensity and volume of your exercise program. If there is not a Cancer Council Life Now Exercise Program in your community then talk with your doctor or a nurse at Cancer Council 13 11 20 about other options including accessing our new Life Now DVD Exercise and Nutrition - staying well during and after cancer.

For further information on how to manage fatigue you can download the factsheet Coping with cancer fatigue. Also avaialble is the booklet Exercise for people living with cancer. This is a 52 page booklet that aims to help people understand the importance of exercise and also provides information about the benefits exercise may have during and after cancer treatments. It provides information on getting started, training, overcoming common side effects with exercise and sample exercises.

It may also be helpful to listen to the Life Now CD called Life After Cancer Treatment. This CD has some information about living with the after effects of cancer and is available for you to download.

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Will I experience nausea and vomiting?

Some people experience nausea and vomiting while having their treatments. There are many ways to reduce nausea and vomiting and also helpful medications that can be prescribed by your doctor. Don’t wait for these symptoms to become severe. It is easier to control nausea and vomiting if relief medications are prescribed early.

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Is there information on nausea and vomiting?

If you would like to read more tips about controlling nausea and vomiting, the publication Nutrition and cancer  contains information on this topic. 

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Will I experience pain?

Many people believe that cancer is always painful. This is not true. Some patients with cancer do not experience cancer-related pain.

Some patients do experience pain associated with their cancer and its treatment. If cancer does cause pain at some stage it is usually possible to control it.

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Is there information on managing pain?

It may be necessary for your doctor to prescribe pain medications as an option during or after treatment so you don't experience too much discomfort. Pain relief medication helps patients stay as comfortable as possible. It is easier to control pain if relief medications are prescribed early. If you have any side effects from the medication tell your doctor promptly so they can be controlled or prevented.

There are a few tips that can assist you to manage pain:

  • Keep a diary of pain levels and other symptoms so that you can tell the doctor and the healthcare team if there are any changes.
  • Use a pain scale to help you communicate the amount of pain. A scale from 1 to 10 is used. With 10 being the worst pain you have experienced.
  • It can be important to take prescribed medication regularly.
  • You may try relieving pain and discomfort with physical therapies such as hot water bottles, ice packs and/or massage, check with you doctor or specialist nurse.

If you would like more information about controlling pain you may want to look at our booklet Overcoming cancer pain.

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Will I lose my hair?

You may lose part or all of your hair whilst having treatment for cancer. Some Chemotherapy drugs can cause hair loss to the head and other parts of the body. Radiotherapy will only cause hair loss over the area being treated. eg Radiotherapy to the brain will cause hair loss on the head.  Hair loss due to cancer treatment is usually temporary; it’s a significant event nevertheless.

If you are receiving chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy and are worried about hair loss, you may find the fact sheet Hair loss  helpful and reassuring. Topics include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hair loss, care of hair and scalp during treatment, coping with hair loss, and choosing a wig or hairpiece. This is a 4 page fact sheet designed as a guide for people with cancer, their families and friends. It can also be ordered by calling Cancer Council 13 11 20.

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How do I access the Wig Service?

Hair loss is usually only temporary. You may like to wear a wig, hat, scarf or turbans.

The Cancer Council WA offers a free wig service. You can borrow wigs, turbans and scarves at no cost and for as long as required during cancer treatment.

The Wig Service also has a mail order service for country patients. For more information on the Cancer Council Wig Service go to the Wig Service page.

Download a printable version of the Cancer Council Wig Service brochure.

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Where can I purchase wigs?

The Cancer Council Wig Service brochure  provides information about purchasing a wig. You may like to call 13 11 20 for a list of the various retail outlets that sell wigs suitable for cancer patients. Public patients may be able to access a voucher to pay for part of the price of a wig. Make enquiries at your treating hospital.

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Does having cancer affect my sexuality?

When you are first diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to focus on getting well. You may not think about or be interested in sexual contact or intimacy for a while. During or after treatment you may start to think about the impact of cancer on your sexuality.

Having cancer doesn’t mean you are no longer a sexual person. However, treatment for cancer such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy can affect your sexuality. This includes your interest in sex, your ability to give or receive sexual pleasure, how you see yourself and how you think others see you. Some of these effects are temporary while others are long lasting. All can be managed or controlled.

Sometimes a counsellor can help you find ways to help each other. You or your partner can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information about appropriate counselling services.

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Is there information on sexuality and cancer?

The booklet Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer  can help you: understand and deal with the ways cancer and its treatment may affect your sexuality; find practical ways to adapt to any physical and emotional changes you experience; access available resources, medication, treatment and support; and find new ways to enjoy intimacy. The principles are the same for all individuals, irrespective of your sexual orientation. If you find the booklet helpful, pass it on to your partner who may also find it useful.

Copies of this booklet can be ordered by contacting Cancer Council 13 11 20.

It may also be helpful to listen to the Life Now CD called Sexuality and Cancer. This CD has information about the possible impact of cancer on your sexuality and some coping strategies. It is available for you to download.

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What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema (lym-phoe-de-ma) is the swelling that results from accumulated lymph fluid when the lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes are not working effectively.   Lymphoedema can occur when the lymph nodes are removed or damaged as a result of cancer surgery or radiotherapy treatment. Swelling is most common in the arms or legs but may also occur in the trunk, neck, face and genitalia. Although there is currently no cure for lymphoedema, it can be managed effectively to improve drainage, reduce swelling and reduce discomfort.

You may find the information factsheet Understanding Lymphoedema - helpful. This booklet is produced by Cancer Australia  and is designed to help you understand the signs and symptoms of lymphoedema following treatment for cancer and what you can do to help manage the condition.

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Where can I get help to manage lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema therapists are specially trained in the management of cancer related lymphoedema and are available throughout the metropolitan and country areas of WA.

Services that may be provided are:

  • comprehensive initial assessment
  • individually tailored treatment program
  • complex lymphatic therapy
  • self-management techniques
  • manual lymph drainage (MLD)
  • compression bandaging
  • prescription of graduated compression garments
  • kinesiology taping

Contact Cancer Council 13 11 20, Australasian Lymphology Association,  your GP or local cancer support service for information regarding  the service situated closest to your area.

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What are the likely costs of managing my lymphoedema?

The cost of treatment depends on your level of health insurance cover.  Rebates may be available through your private health fund for treatment sessions and compression garments.  Rebates can also be obtained through Medicare under a Chronic Disease Management (CDM) plan (formerly known as the Enhanced Primary Care (EPC) program).  CDM referrals are available from your GP.

Some hospitals offer a lymphoedema management service that cancer patients can access free of charge. You may need to ask you general practitioner or local cancer support service for details. Information regarding costs and the relevant referral process should be obtained from the individual service provider in your area. 

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Are there programs that could help give me confidence in my appearance whilst having treatment?

Look Good Feel Better offers workshops for men, women and teenagers that can assist you to face cancer with more confidence. These workshops teach you how to apply makeup, wigs, hats, scarves and turbans. They are a lot of fun and help boost your self esteem, making you feel confident and positive during treatment.

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Will relaxation help me to cope with the side effects of cancer treatment?

Reducing stress and finding a way to relax will often reduce the impact of side effects of cancer treatment. Diversional activities such as listening to music, watching TV and regular exercise can be beneficial for some people. For others attending a Life Now yoga or meditation group provided by the Cancer Council can have added benefit of joining with other people who understand your needs.

For further information on coping with cancer and strategies to deal with symptoms you may like to listen to the Life Now CDs that contain various relaxation and other strategies for people living with cancer or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find your nearest group program.

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Why am I so worried about every little change in my body?

A patient who has had cancer is likely to be more aware of his or her body and any symptoms experienced can be frightening. You might find that a tummy upset, sore throat or cough worries you more than it used to because you think it could mean the cancer has returned or is more active. This is a natural reaction shared by many. When this happens to you speak to your doctor about your concerns.

The normal balance between your mind, body, emotions and spirit can become a significant challenge following a cancer diagnosis and it can be helpful to speak to a professional counsellor.

If you have a question about cancer, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 Monday to Friday, during business hours.

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