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Managing Side Effects of Chemotherapy: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

Cancer is often treated with medicines that destroy the cancer cells (chemotherapy). These medicines may slow cancer growth and prevent or stop the spread of cancer. Chemotherapy also can affect healthy cells and cause side effects.

Most people can work and do their normal activities after and even during chemotherapy, but they may need to limit their schedules. Some side effects of chemotherapy may include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and being tired. Some medicines can cause diarrhea or mouth sores. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to treat the side effects. Your doctor will advise you to take extra care to prevent illnesses and infections, because chemotherapy weakens your natural defences.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?


  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You may get medicine for nausea and vomiting if you have these side effects.

Nausea and vomiting

  • A light meal or snack before chemotherapy may help prevent nausea. If you do have nausea during your treatment, try eating earlier—at least an hour or two before your next treatment. After your treatment, you may want to wait one or more hours before you eat again.
  • Drink fluids with your meals and an hour before or after meals.
  • After vomiting has stopped for 1 hour, sip a rehydration drink, such as Powerade or Gatorade.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Choose water and other caffeine-free clear liquids until you feel better. Try clear fluids, such as apple or grape juice mixed to half strength with water, rehydration drinks, weak tea with sugar, clear broth, and gelatin dessert. Do not drink citrus juices. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
  • When you are feeling better, begin eating clear soups and mild foods until all symptoms are gone for 12 to 48 hours. Other good choices include dry toast, crackers, cooked cereal, and gelatin dessert, such as Jell-O.
  • If your vomiting is not getting better or is getting worse, call your doctor right away.

Loss of appetite

  • It's important to eat healthy food. If you do not feel like eating, try to eat food that has protein and extra calories to keep up your strength and prevent weight loss. You can drink liquid meal replacements for extra calories and protein.
  • Try eating several smaller meals throughout the day. Set a schedule for meals and snacks, and plan for times when it feels best to eat. Try to eat your main meal early.
  • After treatment, you may want to wait for a while to eat. You can also try eating earlier before treatment.
  • Try to eat more of the foods you like during the days and times when your appetite is good.
  • When you don't feel like eating your normal foods, try clear broths/soups and mild foods like toast, crackers, cooked cereal like oatmeal, and gelatin dessert. Eating soft, bland foods may help.

Pain control

  • If you experience any pain during treatment and your doctor prescribes medicine to control this, take the medicine as directed. Often your doctor will have you take these medicines regularly to keep your pain under control. Medicine for pain may cause side effects. Let your doctor know if you feel constipated, have trouble urinating, or have nausea.
  • Try using relaxation exercises to lower your anxiety and stress, which can increase pain.
  • Keep track of your pain so you can tell your doctor what your pain is like. Write down where you feel pain, how long it lasts, what seems to bring it on, and how it feels. Also note what makes the pain feel better or worse.
  • If you have mouth pain, your doctor may prescribe a special mouth rinse that can help relieve the pain.

Weakness and feeling tired

  • Get extra rest. Plan ahead so you can take breaks or naps.
  • Save your energy for the most important things you want to do.
  • Try to get some exercise, such as walking, but stop if you are too tired.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Do not skip meals, especially breakfast.
  • Do something you enjoy. Do you like to listen to music? Spend some time listening to your favourite music. Or find another way to relax by reading, watching a movie, or playing games.
  • Try to lower your stress and workload. Relaxation exercises, music therapy, and prayer are ways to lower stress and help you relax.
  • Ask family and friends to help with home chores and other tasks.

To prevent infections

  • Wash your hands often during the day, especially before you eat and after you use the bathroom.
  • Stay away from people who have illnesses that you might catch, such as influenza (flu) or a cold.
  • Try to stay out of crowds.
  • Clean cuts and scrapes right away with warm water and soap. Clean them daily until they are healed.
  • Keep track of your temperature, if your doctor recommends it. You can do this by taking your temperature at regular times and writing it down.

Hair loss

  • Use a mild shampoo and a soft hair brush.
  • Use a low setting on your hair dryer. Do not colour or perm your hair.
  • Have your hair cut short. It will look thicker and fuller, and it will not be such a shock if you lose hair.
  • Use sunscreen and a hat, scarf, or turban to protect your scalp from the sun.
  • Ask your doctor about other treatments that you may try to prevent or minimize hair loss. These may include the use of a cooling cap.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have a fever.
  • You have abnormal bleeding.
  • You have new or worse pain.
  • You think you have an infection.
  • You have new symptoms, such as a cough, belly pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or a rash.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You are much more tired than usual.
  • You have swollen glands in your armpits, groin, or neck.
  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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