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Coping with side effects

The main treatments for cancer are chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Other treatments, such as hormone therapy, targeted therapy and  immunotherapy, may be used for some types of cancer. These treatments may have side effects that make it harder to do your job. This section provides tips for managing some of the most common side effects.

It can take time to recover from the side effects of treatment. Making changes to your work hours and environment may make things easier. If treatment side effects stop you from working, your doctor may be able to change your treatment or prescribe medicine to help you feel better. Always ask your doctor about possible side effects of medicines, and tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have. Some drugs cause drowsiness and make it hard to think clearly or operate heavy machinery safely. Side effects can be physical and they can be emotional. Feeling sad or depressed during or after treatment is common. Talk to your doctor if you are feeling down.

Complementary therapies, such as meditation, yoga, massage and acupuncture, may improve the side effects of treatment. There is evidence showing that physical activity may also help manage the side effects of treatment for certain cancers.

Download our booklet ‘Emotions and Cancer’

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Complementary Therapies’

Tips for managing some common side effects are below.

Fatigue and tiredness

Cancer and treatment can make you feel very tired and worn out. Job stress, shift work or standing for long periods may make you feel worse. Many people find that they cannot do as much as they normally could, but others are able to continue their usual activities.

Tips for managing fatigue

  • Ask about changing your hours to arrive later if you have fatigue in the morning, or leave early if you’re tired in the afternoon.
  • Plan meetings for times you tend to have more energy.
  • Discuss your priorities with your manager 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.
  • If you don’t have the energy for physical tasks (e.g. lifting, driving), ask colleagues for help.
  • Work from home if you can and rest when you need to.
  • Ask your employer if they can give you a parking space. Find out if you are eligible for a disability parking permit.
  • Bring your lunch or ask a workmate to get it for you.
  • Save energy for work (e.g. get help with housework or have groceries delivered).
  • Eat well and take care of your body. Regular exercise can help improve your mood and energy.
  • Prioritise important or meaningful activities.
  • Ask an occupational therapist or physiotherapist for ways to manage fatigue.

Download our fact sheet ‘Fatigue and Cancer’

Thinking and memory changes

Your job might require you to interact with others, solve problems and concentrate for a long period of time. Cancer and its treatments commonly impact the way your brain functions (cognition). You may feel like you are in a fog. This is called cancer-related cognitive impairment, or may also be called “chemo brain”, “cancer fog” and “brain fog”. It may be caused by the cancer or cancer treatments, and usually improves with time (it may help to explain this to an employer). Tell your doctor about any thinking or memory problems you have.

Tips for improving concentration

  • Get plenty of sleep. Deep sleep is important for memory and concentration.
  • Keep a diary or set reminders on your phone.
  • Carry a small notepad or use your phone to jot down things to remember.
  • Make lists to keep track of things to do. Complete tasks one at a time rather than multitasking.
  • Refer to project plans, documents and meeting minutes to jog your memory.
  • In a noisy office, try noise-cancelling headphones or headphones with rain sounds (and explain why you’re doing this).
  • Let your manager know you may need more time to finish tasks and discuss realistic deadlines.
  • Plan to do things that need concentration when you are most alert.
  • If possible, let calls go to voicemail and return them when you’ve had time to prepare your response.
  • Talk to an occupational therapist about ways to improve your memory and your thinking, such as concentration, information processing, decision making and judgement.

Download our fact sheet ‘Understanding Changes in Thinking and Memory’

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 medicine can take time. If you still have nausea or vomiting after using the prescribed medicine, let your doctor know so that you can try another type.

Tips for managing nausea

  • Take anti-nausea medicine as prescribed by your doctor before your treatment session.
  • Sip on fluids throughout the day. If you don’t like plain water, try 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 smells. Keep your distance if co-workers are eating strong-smelling food. If you work in the food, hairdressing or construction industries and are affected by strong smells, ask for other tasks.
  • Chew gum or suck on ice cubes throughout the day.
  • Try eating food with ginger, which can improve nausea.
  • An empty stomach can make your nausea worse. Eat something before going to bed or soon after getting up in the morning. Eat small meals and snacks regularly. Try nibbling on plain crackers or biscuits.
  • Breathe deeply and gently through your mouth if you feel like you’re going to vomit, or go outside for some fresh air.
  • Keep a sick bag close to you or sit near the bathroom so you can get there quickly if needed.
  • Work from home or take leave if you feel too sick.

Increased risk of infections

Some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, may increase your risk of getting an infection. Viruses such as colds, flu and COVID-19 in the  workplace or on transport to and from work may be easier to catch and pose serious risks. Scratches or cuts may get infected more easily. It is important to stay away from people who are unwell.

Tips for lowering your risk of infection

  • Let others know that you are more likely to get infections. Your employer can remind staff it’s important to stay at home when they are sick.
  • If you work in an open-plan area, move to an office or an isolated desk during treatment and recovery.
  • Wear a mask at work and on public transport.
  • Work in a well-ventilated space and social distance.
  • Keep your workspace clean, especially if you share a desk or car. Wipe down the phone, keyboard, desk and mouse regularly and clean the steering wheel, handles and radio console.
  • Prepare and store food properly to avoid foodborne illness and food poisoning.
  • Arrange to have video or teleconferences instead of face-to-face meetings. Work from home if you can.
  • Ask your doctor about flu and COVID-19 vaccines. Tell HR or your manager if you think you have caught something at work for health and safety and insurance purposes.
  • If possible, take time off if you work in hospitality, health care or childcare, especially if your immunity is low (e.g. low white cells).
  • Wash your hands before eating and drinking, and after taking public transport and using the toilet.
  • Clean and cover wounds to prevent infection. Report any injury to HR for work health and safety reasons.

Changes in how you look

Side effects from surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may change the way you look. You may be upset or feel embarrassed about these changes. You may also be 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 get used to any changes.

Tips for improving confidence

  • 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.
  • Ask your manager to discuss your appearance with co-workers if you don’t feel comfortable doing it.
  • Be prepared for co-workers to ask questions.
  • Answer questions directly or say that you would prefer not to discuss it.
  • Set boundaries for any topics or questions that make you uncomfortable.
  • Consider a wig, beanie, cap or scarf if you’ve lost your hair and feel uncomfortable being bald at work.
  • Consider registering for a Look Good Feel Better workshop to help you manage treatment-related changes in appearance. They also have Home-Delivered Confidence Kits and online workshops available.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed June 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Brooke Russell, Principal Occupational Therapist, WA Cancer Occupational Therapy, WA; Bianca Alessi, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Prunella Blinman, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; James Chirgwin, Physiotherapist, The Wesley Hospital, QLD; Danielle Curnoe, Consumer; Simon Gates, Barrister, Tasmanian Bar, TAS; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Kaylene Jacques, Director, People and Communications, Cancer Council NSW; Alex Kelly, Senior People Attraction Advisor, Human Resources, Allianz Australia Insurance, NSW; Legal reviewer; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health, VIC; Lesley McQuire, Consumer, Cancer Voices NSW.

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