Coping with side effects

Wednesday 1 January, 2014

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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. You may experience some side effects from these treatments that make it challenging to do your job.

However, most side effects can be managed or controlled, and making adjustments to your work schedule and environment may make things easier.

If your side effects are severe and they stop you from working, your doctor may be able to change your treatment or prescribe some medication to make you feel better.

Medication and complementary therapies

For common side effects such as pain, medications can help manage how you feel. Always consult your doctor if you are taking medication and be familiar with the possible side effects caused by the medication. Some drugs can cause drowsiness and make it hard to think clearly.

Complementary therapies, including meditation, tai chi, yoga, massage, relaxation or acupuncture, may also improve the side effects of treatment and enhance quality of life. Cancer Council’s Understanding Complementary Therapies booklet has detailed information about these therapies.

The Understanding Chemotherapy, Understanding Radiotherapy and Overcoming Cancer Pain booklets have more information and tips about coping with specific side effects. Call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 for free copies.

Fatigue and tiredness

Cancer treatment and associated stress can cause you to feel tired and weary. Factors such as job stress, shiftwork or sitting down for long periods may make you feel worse.

  • Adjust your working hours so you can arrive late or leave early, if you have trouble getting started in the morning or if you feel tired in the afternoon.
  • Ask for 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 it’s possible to arrange a nearby parking space. Find out if you are eligible for a disability parking permit.
  • Schedule meetings for the time of day when you tend to have more energy.
  • Organise your workspace, if you sit at a desk, so you don’t have to search for things or get up every time you need something.
  • Ask your colleagues to help you do physical tasks (e.g. lifting, driving).
  • Bring your lunch or ask a colleague to pick food up for you so you don’t have to leave the office.
  • Try to save your physical and mental energy for work, e.g. ask for help around the house or get your groceries delivered.
  • Eat well and take care of your body so you feel as well as possible. Doing 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. If you’ve had chemotherapy, it can be difficult to keep your attention focused. You may feel like you are in a fog. This is sometimes called chemo brain. Talk to your oncologist for more information.

  • Let calls go to voicemail and return them when you can concentrate.
  • Set aside time each day to read and respond to emails.
  • Keep a diary or use the calendar or alarm function on your email or mobile phone to remind you about appointments.
  • Write to-do lists to help keep track of what you need to do.
  • Refer to meeting minutes, outlines, site maps, project plans and other documents to jog your memory.
  • Talk to your manager about moving to a quiet location, if you work in a noisy area.
  • Ask your colleagues or IT department for assistance, if you have difficulty using computers or other electonic equipment. Take notes to help remember the steps needed.
  • Find a private room if you work in an open plan environment.
  • Put your personal items (e.g. handbag, wallet, keys) 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 medication that you can take regularly to relieve symptoms. If you have trouble swallowing medications, talk to your doctor as there may be other ways of taking the medications.

  • Take anti-nausea medication before your treatment session, if you know you are likely to feel nauseated after chemotherapy.
  • Take deep breaths or go outside to get some fresh air.
  • 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 from colleagues eating strong-smelling food.
  • If you work in the food or construction industry and are affected by strong smells, seek tasks in other areas.
  • 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.
  • Keep a rubbish bin 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 weak due to cancer treatment 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. 

  • Let your colleagues know that you are more susceptible to infections.
  • Move to an office or an isolated desk during treatment and recovery, if you work in an open plan environment.
  • 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 health care, child-care or hospitality. Stay away from others when your immune system is weak (e.g. low white blood 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 occupational health and safety reasons.

Changes in your appearance

Side effects from surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy may cause you to look different. It is normal to feel self-conscious when you return to work.

  • 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 if you feel uncomfortable talking about it.
  • Be prepared for your workmates 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, turban or scarf if you’ve lost your hair and feel uncomfortable being bald at work. Cancer Council Victoria offers a free wig service, call 13 11 20 for more details.
  • See information about our upcoming Look Good…Feel Better workshops, a free program to help with changes in appearance.

"I was bald and had a head scarf, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. If I ran into people I hadn’t seen in a while, I was open with them. I would say, ‘Excuse the scarf; I’ve just had a little chemotherapy.'"

Reviewed by: Marie Pitton, Head of Human Resources, Mortgage Choice, NSW; Merilyn Speiser, Principal Consultant, Catalina Consultants, NSW; Helen Tayler, Belconnen Health Centre, Oncology Social Worker, ACT; Pauline Shilkin, Consumer.
Updated: 01 Jan, 2014