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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, can also be used for some types of cancer. You may experience side effects from these treatments that make it harder to do your job. This section provides tips for managing some common side effects.

It can take time to get over 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 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 safely.

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. You can also find more information about managing specific side effects here.

Download our booklet ‘Emotions and Cancer’

Complementary therapies, such as meditation, yoga, massage and acupuncture, may improve the side effects of treatment.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Complementary Therapies’

Tips for managing some common side effects.

Fatigue and tiredness

Cancer treatment and associated stress can make you feel very tired and worn out. 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 changing your work hours so you can arrive later if you have trouble getting started in the morning or leave early if you feel tired in the afternoon.
  • Plan meetings for the 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 provide a parking space. Find out if you are eligible for a disability parking permit.
  • Bring your lunch or ask a workmate to pick it 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 shopping delivered.
  • Eat well and take care of your body. Regular exercise can help improve your mood or make you feel more energetic.

Download our fact sheet ‘Fatigue and Cancer’

Listen to our ‘Managing Cancer Fatigue’ podcast episode

Thinking and memory changes

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 called cancer-related cognitive impairment. Other terms used to describe this include “chemo brain”, “cancer fog” and “brain fog”.

These changes may be caused by the cancer or cancer treatments, and they usually improve with time. Tell your doctor about any thinking or memory problems you are having.

Tips for improving concentration

  • Get plenty of sleep. Deep sleep is important for memory and concentration.
  • Keep a diary or set appointment reminders on your phone.
  • Carry a small notepad or download an app to your phone so you can jot down things you need to remember.
  • Create to-do lists to help keep track of the things you need to achieve. Complete tasks one at a time rather than multitasking.
  • Refer to project plans, meeting minutes and other documents to jog your memory.
  • 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.
  • Let your manager know you may need more time to finish tasks. Discuss realistic deadlines for your projects.
  • Talk to an occupational therapist about strategies to improve your memory.

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 another type can be tried.

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, 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 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.
  • 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 needed.
  • Work from home or take leave if you feel too sick.

Listen to our ‘Appetite Loss and Nausea’ podcast episode

Some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, may increase your risk of getting an infection. Colds and flu passing around the office may be easier to catch and harder to shake off, and 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 other staff know that you are more likely to get infections. Your employer can remind staff 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Check with your doctor about having the flu vaccine.
  • If possible, take time off if you work in hospitality, health care or child care, particularly if your immunity is lowered (e.g. low white blood cell count).
  • Wash your hands before eating and drinking, and after taking public transport and using the toilet.
  • 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.

Side effects from surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may change the way you look. You may be distressed or embarrassed about these changes. You may also 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 co-workers if you feel uncomfortable talking about it.
  • Be prepared for co-workers 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.
  • Consider registering for a Look Good Feel Better workshop to help you manage treatment-related changes in appearance. Visit their website or you can call them on 1800 650 960.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed November 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Kerryann White, Manager, People and Culture, Cancer Council SA; Nicola Martin, Principal, McCabe Curwood, NSW; Jane Auchettl, Coordinator, Education and Training Programs, Cancer Council Victoria; Craig Brewer, Consumer; Alana Cochrane, Human Resources Business Partner, Greater Bank Newcastle, NSW; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, North West Regional Hospital, TAS; Dianne Head, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Metastatic Breast Cancer, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre Westmead, NSW; Alex Kelly, Talent Acquisition Business Partner, Aon, NSW; Prof Bogda Koczwara AM, Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Sharyn McGowan, Occupational Therapist, Bendigo Health, VIC; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Michelle Smerdon, Legal and Financial Support Services Manager, Cancer Council NSW.

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