Cancer Symptom Management

Aches & Pains

At North Star Lodge, it is our goal to keep you comfortable during your treatment.  Treating and controlling your pain is a primary concern.  There are many options available for pain relief.  Consult your doctor or nurse about your pain - they will likely be able to explain the cause and prescribe a treatment specifically for you. 

When describing pain for your doctor or nurse, be as specific as you can about what you are experiencing.  These words may help you describe your pain:  nagging, dull ache, stabbing, burning, squeezing, cutting, tingling, shooting, pressing, flickering, itching, sharp, stinging, pricking, rushing, pinching, pulsing, gnawing, boring or cramping. 

There are complementary treatments that, when combined with pain medications, may help controll your pain.  These include heat or cold packs, massage, pressure and vibration, exercise, repositioning, immobilization of painful area and relaxation, just to name a few. 

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Low Blood Counts

The bone marrow produces blood cells, which are among the cells in your body that grow quickly.  As drugs to combat cancer take effect, you will possibly have a decrease in your white cells, your red cells, and your platelets.  This may start to occur 7 to 10 days after beginning chemotherapy.  Your doctor will monitor your blood counts regularly. 

Do not take aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs without checking with your doctor first.  They can thin your blood.

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Platelets help your blood to clot.  When platelets decrease, you may notice that you bruise easily or you may get a fine red-brown skin rash called petechiae.  Severe symptoms include prolonged bleeding from a cut or opening in your skin, bleeding in your mouth or internal bleeding which may make your bowel movements black and tarry.  Call your doctor if any of these occur.  Make every effort to protect yourself when your platelet count is low.  Wear slippers or shoes on your feet at all times.   Trim your toenails carefully.  Use a soft-bristled toothbrush or cotton swabs to clean your teeth.

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Fever & Infection Precautions

If your white blood cell count drops during treatment, here are some tips to avoid infection:

  • Take a bath or shower once a day with a mild soap

  • Keep your house as clean as possible

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially before and after food preparation or using the bathroom

  • Wash your dishes and utensils thoroughly with hot water and detergent

  • Maintain good oral hygiene.  Brush your teeth after every meal and before bedtime with a soft toothbrush

  • Avoid close physical contact with anyone who has a cold or infection.  Limit visitors to small groups of healthy people.  Avoid crowds.

  • Limit the number of plants in your home and let someone else tend them

  • Have someone else take care of your household pets during times when your white blood cell count is low

  • Call your doctor at the first sign of infection, including fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit, coughing, sneezing, runny nose; pain, swelling or redness of your throat, eyes, ears, skin, joints or abdomen; burning or pain upon urination, or dark or cloudy urine; small blisters, like cold sores, near your mouth or in any other part of your body; and just plain, "not feeling right."

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Medicines used in chemotherapy can cause the lining of the stomach and intestines to be broken down, causing nausea and/or vomiting.  Nausea usually occurs in the first four days following chemotherapy, but may be caused by anxiety before the treatment.  Your doctor may prescribe anti-nausea medication. 

If the symptoms of nausea occur before your treatment, discuss it with your doctor or nurse.  You may be advised to take medicine at home before your treatment.  Be sure you always take anti-nausea medications as they are prescribed.  Sometimes you will be instructed to take the medicine before your treatment, even if you are feeling well at the time.  The following dietary recommendations may help reduce the feeling of nausea:

  • Eat 5-6 small meals a day
  • Stay hydrated
  • Keep crackers handy for nibbling
  • Suck on hard candy to get rid of any bad taste in your mouth
  • Avoid hard-to-digest or spicy foods
  • Eat cold or room temperature foods
  • Eat slowly; chew your food well
  • Avoid fatty or acidic foods the day before therapy
  • Avoid steam odors from hot foods
  • Keep your head elevated for 30-60 minutes after eating
  • Use relaxation techniques
  • Breathe slowly through your mouth
  • Apply a cold towel to your throat
  • Take naps.  Allow yourself to sleep through periods of increased nausea
  • Watch a good movie, play a game, listen to music or a relaxing tape
  • Ask a friend or family member to stay with you

There is no "right way" to manage nausea.  Do whatever works well for you.  And remember, not all chemotherapy drugs cause nausea.  In reality, some cause none at all.

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Constipation or diarrhea may develop with some drugs.  Tell your doctor if you have had problems with either of these things in the past.  If you have problems with constipation, your doctor or nurse may recommend dietary changes or fiber therapy.  If you develop diarrhea, your doctor can prescribe medications to help control it.  If you are having diarrhea 2-3 times a day for more than two days, contact your doctor.

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Mouth Sores & Mouth Care

Mouth ulcers, known as stomatitis, may occur as a result of chemotherapy.  Your gums may become swollen, reddened or sore.  Your gums may also bleed.  If you have mouth ulcers, you may need to avoid spicy or acidic foods due to their harshness.  You may find acidic liquids such as orange or tomato juice difficult to drink.  Drinking through a straw can help.  Foods that are moist and soft can be easier to chew if you have mouth ulcers. 

Take special care of your mouth.  Keeping your mouth moist is the most important factor in promoting healing of mouth sores.  Use a soft bristled toothbrush or cotton swab to clean your teeth.  Over-the-counter mouth washes contain alcohol, and can be very harsh.  Instead, try a saltwater or baking soda rinse.  Rinse your mouth every 2 hours while you are awake, and once in the night if you awaken, but do not interrupt your sleep to do a mouth rinse.  Rinse about 6-8 ounces of fluid each time.

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Fatigue is the most common symptom experienced by cancer patients.  However, fatigue is very subjective: only you know what it feels like for you to have it.  Some people feel just a little worn out, others feel weak or groggy.  One patient may experience fatigue as a loss of motivation or energy, while another simply feels tired.  There is no right or wrong. 

It is known that some things can add to fatigue.  Stress is a major contributor, as are anxiety and sadness.  Inadequate knowledge of the disease can cause a patient to feel depressed, and can contribute to fatigue.  Not eating or sleeping well may make fatigue worse.  Pain or discomfort from your illness or its treatment may make it difficult to cope or rest, thereby increasing fatigue.

To help "win the battle" against fatigue, look closely at the energy you expend in a day.  Set realistic goals and prioritize what's most important for you.  Don't try to take on more than you can manage.  Don't be embarrassed to ask for help from family and friends - you'll be able to return the favor later, and you'll probably find people are happy to help.  Medications can cause increased tiredness and decreased energy, so let your doctor or nurse know.  They may be able to substitute another medication with less side-effect of fatigue. 

Mild exercise may increase your stamina, along with spending time in enjoyable activities such as reading, gardening, playing with pets, listening to music and spending time with friends.  Look for activities that restore your energy and promote a sense of well-being.

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Hair Loss

Because hair roots are fast-growing cells, some chemotherapy will cause you to lose all or part of the hair on your body.  This is called alopecia, and is temporary.  Your hair may grow back while chemotherapy is ongoing, or may not return until about eight weeks after your treatments are complete.  It may grow back a slightly different texture or color.

You may want to wear something on your head during this time, but if you think "bald is beautiful", that's great, too.  Wearing a scarf or hat will protect your head from the sun.  If you do choose to wear a wig or hairpiece, it's a good idea to see a hairdresser before your treatments to match the style of your natural hair.  Some wigs and hairpieces are covered by insurance.

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Neuropath/Dry Skin/Itching

Your skin may become dry and flaky.  This is normal and can be treated in a number of ways.  Do not use lotions or oils with perfume because they can increase your skin's sensitivity.  There are many skin care products on the market designed to help with dryness and itching, and can be purchased without a prescription.  You many want to try a few to find the one that's best for you.

A warm bath or shower is best, not a hot one.  Some soaps are less drying than others, but generally it's best to use soap only where you need it.  You may also find it helpful to wear lightweight, nonbinding clothing.

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Consusion/Memory Loss

Some chemotherapy treatments can contribute to memory loss or a feeling of confusion.  If you experience these symptoms, contact your doctor or nurse. 

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A diagnosis of cancer can quickly change priorities in life.  A person's focus becomes surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these.  Once therapy is underway, the second priority is to look at the person's quality of life.  Sexuality and sexual function are among the quality of life concerns people generally have during cancer treatments. Sexual behavior is made up of many elements that go beyond sexual intercourse.  Sexual self image, selection of a partner, and sexual activity have the potential to be disrupted by a diagnosis of cancer and cancer therapy. 

Express your desire of sexual interaction when you feel able; do not wait for your partner to express interest first.  Do not engage in activity until you feel ready.  But remember, sexual intimacy includes touching, holding, kissing, hugging and talking.  It is not just the act of sexual intercourse.  It is important that you communicate your questions and feelings to your partner.  You should feel free to speak with your doctor or nurse about your sexuality or possible solutions to a particular sexual problem you may encounter.

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Lifesaving cancer therapy may reduce fertility by destroying eggs and sperm. The likelihood of reproductive damage depends on the age and sex of the patient, as well as the type and duration of treatment. The most severe damage comes from radiation to the ovaries or testicles and certain cancer drugs. 

The first goal is to cure the cancer, even if the treatment causes sterility. However, there are several options that may help preserve fertility before and after cancer treatments.  Consult your doctor for information on fertility preservation.

Women of child-bearing age should use a reliable form of contraception during chemotherapy treatments.

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