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Soothe Cancer Side Effects

Simple, natural self-help options


Soothe Cancer Side Effects

Here are four common cancer treatment side effects - fatigue, hair loss, mouth sores, and hand-foot syndrome - and what you can do to help relieve them.

There are many natural, effective ways to help ease the side effects of cancer treatments. In many cases, they can be done at home with minimal effort and positive results. Here are four common cancer treatment side effects—fatigue, hair loss, mouth sores, and hand-foot syndrome—and what you can do to help relieve them.

Help beat your fatigue

What to expect

Fatigue, a feeling of weakness or exhaustion, frequently happens because of the cancer process itself or as a result of treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, bone marrow transplantation, and biological therapy.

Other health problems or side effects such as pain, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, anemia, lack of appetite, and emotional issues can also contribute to fatigue. Your exhaustion could be mild or episodic, or it can completely wipe you out. Fatigue often peaks at the end of treatment and may last long after. It doesn’t mean you’re not getting better or that the treatment is not working. Rest or sleep may not necessarily help.

Natural treatment options

  • Take extra rest while receiving your cancer therapy. Pace yourself. Take short naps (no longer than an hour) throughout the day.
  • Plan ahead to make the most of the energy you have. Set priorities. Make a list of your most important tasks. Perform your most important activities at the time of day you feel most energetic.
  • Consider labour-saving devices such as a raised toilet seat or walker.
  • Ask your health care practitioner if you’re able to exercise. Physical activity such as walking, swimming, or yoga can help fatigue. If you start regular exercise before treatment, it may even help you prevent fatigue during treatment.
  • Eat nutritious foods, including easy-to-digest soups. Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Reduce caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, which may contribute to fatigue.
  • Set routine times to go to bed and get up in the morning so you get a good night’s sleep. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable.
  • Consider relaxation training or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to improve sleep quality. Studies have also shown that meditation can help reduce cancer-related fatigue and stress and improve sleep.

Make the best of hair loss

What to expect

Hair loss from certain types of chemotherapy can be frustrating, but inevitable. You’ll also likely lose hair if you have radiation to the head, as the treatment affects the area on which it’s concentrated. Depending on treatment and dose, hair may or may not grow back; if it does, it may be different from your original hair.

Natural treatment options

Take steps before, during, and after treatment to minimize anxiety about hair loss.

Before hair loss

  • Strengthen hair by avoiding bleaches, colours, and perms and air-dry if possible; it may stay a little longer during treatment.
  • Think about cutting your hair. It can look fuller as it falls out. You can also make a better transition to hair loss.
  • Plan ahead for a head covering if you choose, such as caps, scarves, or wigs.

During hair loss

  • Use a gentle shampoo and wash only as often as necessary. Use a soft brush.
  • Consider shaving your head. It can reduce irritation, sensitivity, and itchiness that might occur while hair is falling out. Some people prefer baldness to patchy hair loss.
  • Protect your scalp with a head cover or sunscreen outside to avoid irritation and feel more comfortable.

When your hair starts to grow back

  • Avoid colouring or bleaching to protect your new, fragile hair and sensitive scalp.
  • Learn patience. Your hair may grow back slowly and look different from the hair lost during treatment.

Deal with mouth sores

What to expect

Sores in the mouth and throat can be caused by both chemotherapy and head or neck radiation. Both treatments impair the immune system, so viruses, bacteria, and fungi can more easily infect your mouth, causing the sores or making them worse.

Prevention tips

  • Ask your dentist the best ways to brush and floss during chemo, as well as the best type of toothbrush or floss for sensitive gums.
  • Brush your teeth with an extra-soft bristle toothbrush and floss after each meal.
  • Rinse your mouth several times a day, avoiding alcohol-based mouthwashes.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, providing vitamins and nutrients to help fight infections during treatment.

Natural treatment options

  • Eat foods cold or at room temperature. Hot and warm foods can irritate a tender mouth and throat.
  • Eat small meals more frequently. Cut food into small pieces and eat slowly.
  • Eat soothing, soft foods such as bananas, applesauce, scrambled eggs, and cooked cereals, or purée cooked foods in the blender.
  • Avoid painful foods—acidic, crunchy, spicy, salty—that can irritate your mouth.
  • Drink plenty of liquids; consider using a straw to help keep liquids away from sore areas.
  • Chew sugarless gum or suck on ice cubes, frozen pops, or sugarless hard candy.
  • Continue cleaning your mouth with special foam swabs, which are easier on your gums.
  • Rinse your mouth several times a day with a weak saltwater solution or combination of baking soda and warm water.

Prevent or manage hand-foot syndrome

What to expect

Certain types of chemotherapy can cause a side effect known as hand-foot syndrome. This skin reaction occurs on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. The chemotherapy medication leaks into the cells from capillaries (small blood cells). Daily activities can cause heat, friction, and pressure, contributing to the skin reaction.

Mild symptoms may include

  • redness
  • swelling
  • tingling or burning
  • tenderness
  • numbness
  • rash

Severe symptoms may include

  • skin tightness and callus formation
  • cracked, flaking, and peeling skin
  • blisters, ulcers, or sores
  • severe pain that may cause difficulty walking or using the hands

If your hand-foot syndrome gets worse, let your health care practitioner know. Often chemotherapy treatment can be reduced or the schedule changed or stopped until your symptoms improve.

Natural treatment options

  • Use cool or tepid—not hot—water when washing dishes, showering, or bathing.
  • Pat skin after bathing; don’t rub with a towel.
  • Avoid massaging or rubbing feet and hands.
  • Avoid pressure on the soles of the feet or palms of the hands from activities such as jogging, strenuous exercise, or standing for a long time.
  • Avoid using tools or other utensils that require you to squeeze, press, or grip with your hands.
  • Avoid exposure to sun and heat.
  • Avoid harsh chemicals, laundry detergents, or cleaning products.
  • Elevate hands and feet when sitting or lying down.
  • Gently apply non-irritating moisturizing creams— do not rub or massage.
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing and shoes.
  • Cool hands and feet with an ice pack or cool pack— no longer than 15 minutes at a time.

Supplements to support cancer treatment

You may consider taking supplements such as herbs, teas, vitamins, extracts, or other natural products to boost your immune system and aid your cancer treatment side effects. It’s important to discuss your choices with your medical team and integrative medical practitioner. Some supplements might actually interfere with your cancer treatment.

Ask your health care practitioner about the following potential supplements for cancer that are currently being studied.

  • vitamin D
  • garlic
  • green tea
  • mushroom products (reishi, shiitake, maitake, turkey tail)
  • antioxidants
  • ginger
  • iron
  • L-glutamine


Taking Care of the Body’s Supercomputer

Taking Care of the Body’s Supercomputer

Suzanne MethotSuzanne Methot