Cancer Symptoms: Tips to Help You Feel Better
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.
When cancer spreads, it can press painfully on nerves, joints, bones, and organs. Treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery also cause some pain.
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.
- 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 gain control over your breathing, heart rate, and other processes in your body. It can change how you perceive your level of pain.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDs, (aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen)
To manage steadier or more severe pain, your doctor might recommend one or more of these prescription medicines:
- Antidepressants, such as amitriptyline (Elavil), doxepin (Sinequan), imipramine (Tofranil), and trazodone (Oleptro)
- Anti-seizure drugs, such as carbamazepine (Tegretol) and gabapentin (Neurontin)
- Opioid pain relievers, such as fentanyl (Actiq, Fentora), hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
- Steroids, such as prednisone and dexamethasone
Nausea and Vomiting
About 8 out of 10 people who are treated for cancer have nausea and vomiting, which is 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.
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, 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.