Physical effects

Friday 1 January, 2016

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On this page: Fatigue | Pain | Changes in appetite | Changing body image | Loss of interest in sex | Fertility | Sleeping problems


The physical impact of cancer and cancer treatments may affect your quality of life and emotions in different ways. People who experience physical symptoms, such as fatigue, pain and nausea, can also experience emotional distress. How long these effects last varies from person to person, but they can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression.

Fatigue

Feeling exhausted and lacking energy for day-to-day activities is the most common side effect of cancer treatment. This is known as fatigue. It differs from normal tiredness as it often doesn’t go away with rest or sleep. For example, when chemotherapy affects red blood cells (anaemia). It can also be caused by the effort of coping with the physical and emotional effects of diagnosis and treatment.

Ways to manage fatigue
  • Plan to do things at the time of day when you feel less tired. Keep a journal to track your ‘good times’.
  • Limit daytime naps to 30 minutes so they don’t make it hard to sleep at night.
  • Try to spend time outside in the fresh air each day.
  • Pace yourself by doing one thing a day rather than overdoing it just because you feel a bit better.
  • Do some exercise every day. Research shows it can help reduce tiredness and preserve muscle strength.

Pain

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

Call 13 11 20 or see Overcoming Cancer Pain for information on the different medicines used to manage pain.

Changes in appetite

Your appetite might change if you feel unwell, anxious or depressed or because of the physical effects of cancer treatment. Some people lose their appetite, while others eat more. A change in appetite can make you feel distressed.

Ways to manage appetite
  • Try to eat a well-balanced diet to help your body cope better with the effects of treatments, give you more energy and maintain your wellbeing.
  • Eat smaller portions more often during the day and choose full-fat foods whenever possible.
  • Talk to a dietitian for suggestions on managing your appetite.
  • Call 13 11 20 or see Nutrition and Cancer for information and ideas on improving your nutrition.

Changing body image

Cancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can cause changes to your body. Whether these changes are temporary or permanent, they can change the way you feel about yourself (your self-esteem) and make you feel self-conscious. You may feel less confident about who you are and what you can do. This is a common reaction whether or not your body has changed physically.

Ways to improve self-esteem
  • 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.
  • Participate in the Look Good Feel Better program. This free two-hour workshop teaches women, men and adolescents how to use skin care, hats and wigs to reduce appearance- related side effects during and after treatment. Call 1800 650 960 or go to lgfb.org.au for more information and to register for a workshop.
  • Have your wig fitting before starting treatment so you match it to the colour and texture of your real hair.
  • Care for dry skin with a mild soap and moisturiser, and avoid exfoliating ingredients.
  • Participate in activities you enjoy, such as sport, painting, music and craft, which may increase your self-confidence.
  • For practical suggestions about hair loss and other physical changes, call Cancer Council Information and Support 13 11 20.

Loss of interest in sex

Sexuality is about who you are and how you feel as a man or woman. It is the feelings and characteristics that make up your sexual identity. This means different things to different people.

Cancer treatments may affect your sexual organs or your ability to become aroused. You may also feel tired and unwell, or you may be too worried about the cancer to think about sex. Low libido can also occur when cancer treatments disturb your normal hormone balance or if you are feeling depressed. Often low sex-drive starts to improve after treatment is finished, but for some people it’s ongoing.

Ways to maintain intimacy
  • While sexual intercourse your sense of self and the may not always be possible relationship with your partner. during and immediately after treatment, holding, cuddling, kissing and caressing are other ways to show love and affection or express sexual feelings.
  • If sex is painful, or you have concerns about the safety of sexual activity, check with your doctor.
  • Use counselling, either individually or together, to discuss how cancer affects your sense of self and the relationship with your partner.
  • Cancer Council offers a private and personalised online program that addresses sexual concerns for adults. Find out more at rekindleonline.org.au.
  • Read more about managing interest in sex in Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.
  • Talk to your treatment provider about any concerns you have about low sex drive.

Fertility

Some cancer treatments affect the reproductive organs, which may lead to temporary or permanent infertility. This means it may no longer be possible to conceive a child.

Many people experience a sense of loss when they learn that their reproductive organs will be removed or will no longer function. You may feel devastated if you are unable to have children, and may worry about the impact of this on your relationship or future relationships. Even if your family is complete or you were not planning to have children, you may feel some distress.

Ways to preserve fertility
  • Talk to a fertility specialist before starting treatment to discuss options for preserving fertility before and during cancer treatment, and to find out what your options may be after treatment ends.
  • Common options for women include in vitro fertilisation (IVF), ovarian tissue freezing and hormone treatments known as ovarian suppression.
  • Common options for men include sperm banking and shielding the testicle during radiotherapy.
  • If you have a partner, let them know how you’re feeling. Speaking to a counsellor, gynaecological oncology nurse or prostate care nurse may also help.
  • You can find more information in Cancer Council’s booklet Fertility and Cancer. Call 13 11 20 for a free copy.

Sleeping problems

Sleep is important to help your body cope with cancer treatment, including physical and emotional aspects. Sleep can be affected by worry, pain (for example, after surgery), hormonal changes such as hot flushes in women who become menopausal, and nausea. As many people are not as physically active during their treatment, their body is not as tired and they find it harder to sleep. Feeling sad or depressed can also make it difficult to sleep well at night.

Ways to improve sleep
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Put screens (mobile phone, tablet, computer or TV) away an hour before bedtime and do something relaxing – have a bath, read, listen to music or drink a glass of warm milk.
  • Avoid coffee, tea and other caffeine products, such as chocolate and cola drinks, after early afternoon.
  • Try to not sleep during the day. If you feel you can’t stay awake, limit naps to 30 minutes.
  • Get some physical exercise every day, but avoid any exercise two hours before going to bed.
  • Use relaxation techniques, such as the Cancer Council relaxation CD, to prepare you for bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet.
  • If you can’t sleep, get up and sit quietly on the couch until you feel sleepy again. Avoid turning on bright lights, reading or watching TV as these activities tend to wake you up more.

Reviewers: Prof Jane Turner, Psychiatrist, Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, The University of Queensland, QLD; Andreea Ardeleanu, Social Worker, Cancer Counselling Service, Phillip Community Health Centre, ACT; Dr Lisa Beatty, Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Flinders University, SA; Joshua Chalmers, Consumer; Valmai Goodwin, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Karen Hall, Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services Division, Flinders Medical Centre, and Nurse Health Counsellor, Cancer Council SA, SA; and Judith McGrath, Consumer.
Updated: 01 Jan, 2016