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12 Tips for Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects for Breast Cancer

Posted on September 06, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Amanda Jacot, PharmD

  • There are many practical ways to prepare for chemotherapy and its side effects.
  • People who have been through chemotherapy, including MyBCTeam members, are a great resource when preparing to undergo this cancer treatment.
  • Pay attention to how your body feels before, during, and after chemotherapy, and discuss your side effects with your oncology provider.

Chemotherapy (or chemo) is a common treatment for breast cancer, but it unfortunately comes with a range of side effects. If you’re nervous about the side effects of chemotherapy, you’re not alone. People who’ve been there, like members of MyBCTeam, have helpful tips and suggestions for dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy.

The side effects of chemotherapy can vary, depending on the type and dose of chemotherapy drug, the length of treatment, and the individual. You may not experience all of the possible side effects of treatment.

Common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rashes
  • Skin and nail changes
  • Trouble concentrating, also known as “chemo brain”
  • Increased risk of infection

Consider the tips in this article, as well as recommendations from your cancer care team, to help you mentally, emotionally, and physically prepare for chemotherapy treatment.

Before Chemo

Take action before starting chemotherapy treatment to make the process as comfortable as possible. Preparing what you can ahead of time will help you to better manage side effects as they come up.

“Don’t worry yourself over side effects that haven’t happened and may not happen. Deep breaths, listen to your body. If any issues arise, tell your oncologist,” one MyBCTeam member recommended.

1. Ask Your Doctor About Vaccinations

Chemotherapy weakens the immune system, putting you at risk for severe infections. Immunizations are not recommended for people currently in chemotherapy, but it’s good to make sure you’re up-to-date on vaccinations before starting treatments.

Ask your doctor if you should get any vaccinations, like a flu shot or COVID-19 vaccine, before starting chemo. Your doctor can administer vaccinations or recommend a good place to get them.

2. Visit the Dentist

Dental problems, such as tooth decay, can worsen during chemotherapy, so it’s important that your mouth and teeth are healthy before starting the treatment. Visit the dentist to help prevent serious problems. If possible, complete dental work at least one month before chemotherapy starts to give your mouth time to heal.

3. Stock Your Pantry and Plan Your Meals

Chemotherapy can change your dietary needs. You may need to increase the amount of calories and protein in your diet. Fatigue from chemo can also make it hard to find the energy to cook nutritious meals.

Before chemotherapy starts, stock your pantry with foods that are easy to prepare, like ready-to-eat and frozen meals. You may want to try cooking and then storing meal-sized portions in your freezer. Make sure that the foods you stock up on are ones you can eat even if you feel sick.

When planning your meals during chemotherapy, consider that you might:

  • Have changes in taste or smell, and be sensitive to food smells
  • Feel nauseated
  • Not have an appetite

One MyBCTeam member reported experiencing diarrhea while undergoing chemo, resulting in dehydration and low potassium levels. “If you can stand it, add some of the BRAT diet into your routine to offset the diarrhea (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast),” another MyBCTeam member recommended.

Bland foods like these may be easier on your stomach. Other members have recommended plain foods like chicken pot pie, chicken noodle soup, and mashed potatoes.

4. Prepare for Hair Loss

It is normal to feel nervous about hair loss during chemotherapy. The choice of whether to cut your hair is totally up to you. Some people choose to trim their hair or shave it off before it starts to fall out. To reduce pulling on your scalp, you can purchase a silk pillowcase and a wide tooth comb.

“I had my head shaved. My hair was falling out in huge clumps. It felt good to be in control of something,” wrote oneMyBCTeam member.

You may also choose to find a wig, scarf, or other type of head covering to wear before starting chemotherapy.

A member of MyBCTeam shared, “My hair was long enough to be cut and donated, so I did that. It made me feel better to think I beat cancer to the punch, giving it away before cancer could take it! I had it cut into a short style, and that made it easy to order a wig in a color very close to mine. Once the wig came in, I had them shave my head.”

5. Pack a Chemo Bag

If you’ll be receiving IV chemotherapy at a clinic, you’ll probably be sitting in the same seat for hours at a time, just like for a long-haul flight. Pack a small “chemo bag” of essentials to help you feel more comfortable and entertained during your treatment sessions.

Some items you may want to consider packing include:

  • A laptop, tablet, or phone to watch movies or shows, read, or play games — Remember to charge your devices ahead of time.
  • A pen and paper
  • Games, puzzles, or other activities
  • Snacks and water
  • A neck pillow and blankets

During Chemo

Everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy. Pay attention to the side effects you experience and how they affect your daily life. Tell your oncologist about all of your side effects, especially if they become severe. They will work with you to find the best treatment plan to help manage your side effects.

6. Manage Nausea

Your doctor may prescribe anti-nausea medications for you to take before chemotherapy starts. Any medications they prescribe will depend on the treatment regimen and your specific side effects.

Common anti-nausea medications for people going through chemo include:

  • Ondansetron (sold as Zofran and Zuplenz)
  • Aprepitant (Emend)
  • Dexamethasone (Decadron)
  • Prochlorperazine (such as Compro and Procomp)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)

7. Get Comfortable During Infusions

Wear comfortable clothing, shoes, and socks when you go to the clinic for chemotherapy infusions. Ask to be seated near a window if you’d like. Make use of your chemo bag and get as comfy as possible. If you get cold, ask the nurse if they can provide warm blankets.

8. Eat Well and Hydrate

It’s important to maintain good nutrition while you’re undergoing chemotherapy. It can help to think of food as part of your treatment plan. It will help sustain your energy levels, maintain your body weight, and speed your recovery from treatments. Eating well and staying hydrated can also help with avoiding constipation and diarrhea.

A MyBCTeam member recommended, “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate before, during, and after the infusion, and eat something really good and substantial before the infusion.”

Here are some tips to help manage difficulties with your appetite during chemotherapy:

  • Eat your largest meal when you usually have the biggest appetite.
  • Eat foods that sound good to you, even if you keep eating the same thing over and over again.
  • Eat frequent, small meals.
  • Try liquid meal replacement shakes.

If you have trouble with chewing or swallowing, you can try the following:

  • Take small bites.
  • Drink thick liquids like buttermilk or milkshakes.
  • Use a commercial thickener to adjust the thickness of a beverage.
  • Try crushed ice if drinking water is too uncomfortable.
  • Mash or puree foods to a baby food consistency.
  • Use a straw.

Chemotherapy can make you feel fatigued and dehydrated. Get ahead of dehydration by consuming ample amounts of water. If the taste of water isn’t appealing to you, try adding flavor tablets to your water, or drink ice cold water. You can also combat dehydration by asking your doctor or nurse for an extra bag of saline at the beginning or end of your chemotherapy infusions.

9. Get Quality Rest

It’s important to get plenty of rest while undergoing chemo treatments. Listen to your body. If you’re tired during the daytime, try taking short naps. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family members for help when you need it. Both chemotherapy and breast cancer itself can cause fatigue, and resting when you need to will help keep fatigue at bay.

Getting rest will also help you to manage the cognitive symptoms of chemo brain, like trouble concentrating and not feeling as mentally sharp. So far, researchers have not found a way to prevent chemo brain.

“I think our bodies let us know when they need rest during and after chemo treatment! I do well most days, but still have fatiguing days, especially if I do too much or it’s hot outside. The heat seems to make it worse!” said a MyBCTeam member.

After Chemo

Recovering from chemotherapy can feel like severe jet lag, but it may take weeks or months to fully recover. The tips above in the “During Chemo” section may help with the process, along with the tips below.

A member of MyBCTeam commented, “I didn’t realize how much chemotherapy really takes out of you. One month later and I’m still dealing with the side effects.”

10. Try To Stay Active

Fatigue caused by chemotherapy can last for months or even years in some people.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, exercising can help manage fatigue and boost your mood during and after chemotherapy. Studies have found that aerobic exercises like walking or swimming are beneficial for improving fatigue and also sleep problems, depression, and anxiety.

You don’t need to exercise a lot to feel its benefits. Try starting with short walks, and see how you feel afterward. Ask a friend to join you for a 20-minute walk, or engage in a form of movement that you enjoy.

Tips for Hygiene and Comfort

Some suggestions may be helpful throughout the course of chemotherapy treatment. Dry skin, for example, can be managed with different products and techniques.

11. Care For Your Hair and Skin

To manage dry skin, stay hydrated by drinking a lot of water. Apply a fragrance-free moisturizer after bathing and regularly throughout the day.

Wash your hands regularly to prevent infections. Use warm, not hot, water when bathing. Hot water dries out the skin. Use gentle, fragrance-free soaps on your skin, and a gentle shampoo for your hair (while it’s falling out).

When you go outside, apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to protect your skin. You can protect your hair and scalp by wearing a hat.

12. Soothe and Protect Dry Eyes, Nose, and Mouth

To manage dry eyes, try artificial tear drops. If your eyelashes have fallen out, make sure to wear protective eyewear or sunglasses when you go outside to protect your eyes from dust and dirt.

A saline nasal spray can help hydrate your nasal passages, which may be dry from chemo and a loss of nose hairs. A humidifier at home can also add moisture to the air.

Some tips to help with symptoms of dry mouth include the following:

  • Keep water nearby and take small sips often.
  • Use a toothbrush with soft bristles and avoid toothpaste with a strong minty flavor.
  • Use a dry mouth mouthwash.
  • For dry lips, use lip balm.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, over 58,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.

Have you undergone chemotherapy? How have you dealt with the side effects? Share your tips for managing side effects in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Amanda Jacot, PharmD earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 and a Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of Texas College of Pharmacy in 2014. Learn more about her here.

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