Coping with side effects

Sunday 1 January, 2017

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On this page:  Fatigue and tiredness | Concentration and memory | Nausea and vomiting | Increased risk of infections | Changes in your appearance


The main treatments for cancer include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Other treatments, such as hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy, can also be used for some types of cancer. You may experience side effects from these treatments that make it challenging to do your job.

This section provides tips for managing some common side effects. The Understanding Chemotherapy, Understanding Radiotherapy and Overcoming Cancer Pain sections have more tips and information about specific side effects.

It can take time to get over the side effects of treatment, and making adjustments to your work schedule and environment may make things easier. If your side effects stop you from working, your doctor may be able to change your treatment or prescribe some medicine to help you feel better. Always consult your doctor about possible side effects of medicines. Some drugs can cause drowsiness and make it hard to think clearly or operate heavy machinery.

Complementary therapies, including meditation, yoga, massage or acupuncture, may improve the side effects of treatment. See Understanding Complementary Therapies or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information.

Side effects can be physical and emotional. Feeling low or depressed during or after treatment is common. Talk to your doctor if you are feeling down. Visit beyondblue.org.au for resources to help with managing depression or anxiety, see Emotions and Cancer or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information.

Fatigue and tiredness

Cancer treatment and associated stress can cause you to feel tired and weary. Factors such as job stress, shiftwork or standing for long periods may make you feel worse. Many people find that they cannot do as much as they normally would, but others are able to continue their usual activities.

Tips for managing fatigue
  • Talk to your employer about adjusting your working hours so you can arrive late if you have trouble getting started in the morning or leave early if you feel tired in the afternoon.
  • Schedule meetings for the times you tend to have more energy.
  • Discuss your priorities with your employer to ensure you save your energy for the most important tasks.
  • Ask permission to take breaks when you need to. Bring a pillow to work and find a quiet place where you can rest. If this isn’t possible, get some fresh air or take a short walk.
  • Work from home if you can and rest when you need to.
  • Ask your employer if they can provide a parking space. Find out if you are eligible for a disability parking permit.
  • Organise your workspace so things are in easy reach.
  • If you don’t have the energy
  • for physical tasks (e.g. lifting, driving), ask colleagues for help.
  • Bring your lunch or ask a workmate to pick food up for you so you don’t have to go out.
  • Try to save your energy for work, e.g. ask for more help around the house or get your groceries delivered.
  • Eat well and take care of your body. Regular exercise can help improve your mood or make you feel more energetic.

Concentration and memory

Your job might require you to interact with others, solve problems and concentrate for long periods of time. After cancer treatment, it can be difficult to concentrate. You may feel like you are in a fog. This is sometimes called ‘chemo brain’, but can happen even if you don’t have chemotherapy. Talk to your oncologist for more information.

Tips for improving concentration
  • Keep a diary or set your email or mobile phone to remind you about appointments.
  • Carry a small notepad or download an app to your phone so you can jot down things you need to remember.
  • Write to-do lists to help keep track of what you need to do. Complete tasks one at a time rather than multi-tasking.
  • Refer to project plans, meeting minutes and other documents to jog your memory.
  • If you work in a noisy area, talk to your manager about moving to a quiet location.
  • Plan activities so you do things that require more concentration when you are more alert.
  • If possible, let calls go to voicemail and return them when you’ve had time to prepare your response.
  • Set aside time each day to read and respond to emails.
  • Let your manager know you may need more time to finish tasks. Discuss realistic deadlines for your projects.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Deep sleep is important for memory and concentration.
  • Talk to an occupational therapist about strategies to improve your memory.
  • Put personal items (e.g. keys, wallet) in a dedicated place at home and at work so you don’t misplace them.

Nausea and vomiting

Nausea is best treated early. If you feel sick, talk to your doctor. You will probably be given anti-nausea medicine that you can take regularly to relieve symptoms. Finding the right one can take time: if you still have nausea or vomiting after using the prescribed medicine, let your doctor know so that another type can be tried.

Tips for managing nausea
  • Take anti-nausea medicine before your treatment session, if you know you are likely to feel nauseated afterwards.
  • Sip on fluids throughout the day. If you don’t like water, drink flavoured water or tea. Peppermint, ginger or weak black tea can be soothing. You can also try sparkling water, lemonade or ginger ale.
  • Avoid strong odours. Keep your distance if colleagues are eating strong-smelling food.
  • If you work in the food or construction industry and are affected by strong smells, ask for other tasks.
  • Chew gum or suck on ice cubes throughout the day.
  • Eat something before going to bed or soon after getting up in the morning, and eat small meals and snacks regularly. An empty stomach can make your nausea worse. Try nibbling on bland crackers.
  • Try eating food with ginger, which can ease nausea.
  • Breathe deeply and gently through your mouth if you
  • feel like you’re going to vomit, or go outside to get some fresh air.
  • Keep a sick bag close to you or sit near the bathroom so you can get there quickly if necessary.
  • Work from home or take leave, if you feel too nauseated.

Increased risk of infections

If your immune system is affected by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, you need to take precautions against getting an infection. Colds and flu are often passed around in organisations or between people who work closely together. This happens frequently during winter.

Tips for lowering your risk of infection
  • Let your colleagues know that you are more susceptible to infections.
  • If you work in an open plan environment, move to an office or an isolated desk during treatment and recovery.
  • Work in a well-ventilated space, if possible.
  • Keep your workspace clean, especially if you share a desk. Wipe down your phone, keyboard, desk and mouse regularly. If you use a company car, clean the steering wheel, handles and radio console.
  • Arrange to have video or teleconferences instead of face-to-face meetings.
  • If possible, take time off if you work in hospitality, health care or child-care. Stay away from people who are unwell, particularly if your immunity is lowered (e.g. low white blood cell count). Your employer can remind staff to stay at home when they are sick.
  • Wash your hands before eating and drinking, after taking public transport and using the bathroom.
  • Clean and cover any wounds or injuries that occur at work to prevent infection. Report the incident to your human resources department for work health and safety reasons.

Changes in your appearance

Side effects from surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy may cause you to look different and change the way you feel about yourself. You may feel less confident about who you are and what you can do. It is normal to feel self-conscious when you return to work. Give yourself time to adapt to any changes.

Tips for overcoming self-consciousness
  • Talk about the changes. If you don’t openly acknowledge that you look different, people may avoid you because they don’t know what to say.
  • Consider asking your manager to raise the issue of your appearance with your colleagues if you feel uncomfortable talking about it.
  • Be prepared for colleagues to ask questions.
  • Try not to get angry or flustered by questions that make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Answer questions directly or say that you would prefer not to discuss it.
  • Wear a wig, beanie, cap or scarf if you’ve lost your hair and feel uncomfortable being bald at work. Some state and territory Cancer Councils offer a free wig service – call 13 11 20 for more details.
  • Contact Look Good Feel Better, a free program to help with changes in appearance. Call 1800 650 960.
"I did the Look Good Feel treatment. It helped me prepare mentally for losing my hair during chemotherapy." – Ann

Reviewed by: Carolyn Butcher, Chief People and Development Officer, Thomson Geer, VIC; Karen Hall, Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services Division, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Deborah Lawson, Legal Policy Advisor, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Phil Mendoza- Jones, Consumer; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council VIC; Helen Tayler, Social Worker and Counsellor, Cancer Counselling Service, Belconnen Community Health Centre, ACT.
Updated: 01 Jan, 2017