Physical effects

Tuesday 30 April, 2013

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On this page: Fatigue | Pain | Loss of appetite | Changing body image | Sexuality, intimacy and cancer | Reviewers

The physical effects of cancer and cancer treatments may affect your emotions in different ways. People who experience physical symptoms, such as fatigue, nausea and pain, are often more likely to have emotional distress. How long these physical effects last varies from person to person.


Feeling exhausted and lacking energy for day-to-day activities (fatigue), is the most common side effect of cancer treatment. It can be caused by the physical and emotional effects of diagnosis and treatment. Fatigue differs from normal tiredness as it often doesn't go away with rest or sleep. Fatigue can also be linked to low moods or depression, so it may help to talk to a health professional about available treatments. 


  • Plan to do things at the time of day when your tiredness is least severe. Keeping a journal may help you keep track of your ‘good times'.
  • Research shows that gentle exercise reduces tiredness, helps preserve muscle strength and gives a sense of normality.
  • Let your doctors or nurses know if you're having trouble sleeping.
  • Have a short rest during the day. Naps can refresh you without making it hard for you to sleep at night.
  • Try to spend some time outside in the fresh air each day. 


People can experience pain from cancer and its treatment. If you're feeling anxious, this can make pain more difficult to handle. If you're in pain, discuss it with your doctor. There are many treatments now available to help relieve pain. 

'I found the decision to take morphine regularly difficult. Having made it, I have been taking the slow-release tablets for 18 months with no appreciable side effects. Without the morphine, the pain would be too debilitating for me to continue doing all the things I do now.' — Pete 

Loss of appetite

You may not feel like eating if you're unwell, stressed or experiencing the physical effects of cancer treatment. You may also lose your appetite if you're anxious or depressed. This may make you lose weight and strength.

Good nutrition, or giving your body the food it needs to keep working properly, can help you cope better with the effects of cancer and treatments. It can give you more energy, make you feel less tired, and maintain your wellbeing. 

Contact Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20 for information and ideas on managing fatigue and cancer pain or finding new ways to improve your nutrition. 

Changing body image

Cancer treatment can change the way you feel about yourself (your self-esteem). You may feel less confident about who you are and what you can do. This is common whether your body has changed physically or not.

Give yourself time to adapt. Try to see yourself as a whole person (body, mind and personality) instead of focusing only on the parts of you that have changed. For practical suggestions about hair loss and other physical changes, call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Look Good...Feel Better program

Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can sometimes cause side effects such as hair loss and skin irritation. These changes can make you feel self-conscious.

Look Good...Feel Better is a free two-hour program for both men and women to teach them techniques using skin care, hats and wigs to help restore appearance and self-esteem during and after treatment. See a list of our upcoming Look Good...Feel Better workshops

'I did the Look Good...Feel Better program before treatment. It helped me prepare mentally for losing my hair during chemotherapy.' — Ann 

Sexuality, intimacy and cancer

Sexuality is about who you are and how you feel as a man or woman. It's the feelings and characteristics that make up your sexual identity. This means different things to different people. This information has been written to be inclusive of all sexual orientations, whether you have a partner, are between partners or have chosen to be single.

Having cancer can affect your sexuality in both physical and emotional ways. The impact of these changes depends on many factors, such as treatment and side effects, the way you and your partner communicate, the way you see your changed body, and your self-confidence. Knowing the potential challenges and addressing them may help you adjust to these changes. While sexual intercourse may not always be possible during and immediately after treatment, closeness and sharing can still be part of your relationship.

If sex is painful, or you have doubts about the safety of sexual activity, check with your doctor. Counselling, either individually or together, can provide ways to discuss cancer and how it affects your relationship with your partner.

Intimacy isn't all about sex. Sexual intercourse (or penetrative sex) isn't the only way of showing love and affection or expressing sexual feelings. Holding, cuddling, kissing and caressing are also important ways of being intimate. See our sexuality and cancer pages for more.

Reviewers: Dr Lisbeth Lane, Senior Clinical Psychologist, University of Wollongong, Wollongong Hospital, NSW; Kim Hobbs, Social Worker, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Megan Best, Palliative Care Physician, Greenwich Hospital, NSW; Deborah Ball, Coordinator of Direct Support Services, Cancer Council SA; Sandy Hutchison, Executive Manager, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council QLD; Jill Adams, RN, Helpline, Cancer Council WA; and Ksenia Savin, Cancer Connect Volunteer and Consumer, QLD.
Updated: 30 Apr, 2013