Chemotherapy Guide

Coping with chemotherapy and its side effects

Chemotherapy is designed to kill off fast dividing cells like cancer, but unfortunately it also affects other healthy cells. This means that chemotherapy can have effects on many different body parts.

Chemotherapy can be daunting, both for those going through it and their loved ones. Here are some tips suggested by patients who have gone through it, as well as from experts in the field, to help you know what to expect.

You’ll also find ways to make the side effects of chemotherapy that little bit easier to cope with, and products that patients and experts have recommended as being particularly helpful. In this guide to coping with chemotherapy, we cover these topics:

 

Not sure where to start? We've hand-picked some of our most popular and highest-rated products to make our Ultimate Chemo Hamper, to help those dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy.

                                                                                

The hamper includes queasy drops, a beautifully illustrated mindfulness book, itchy skin oil, a cooling pillow mat, a gel eye mask, a microwavable lavender wheat wrap, ginger chews and a muscle balm.

                                                                                  

 

Feeling Tired

Chemotherapy is though and can make you feel very tired. This can be frustrating and difficult to cope with especially if you usually have lots of energy. It's normal to feel like this, and you may notice it gets worse towards the end of your treatment.

Top Tip:

"If I was starting to feel too tired, I would take myself off for a cat nap and it really helped recharge my batteries." - Peter

Tips:

  • Don't push yourself too hard, you don't need to do everything yourself so try delegating some tasks to family and friends or get outside help for doing the chores that you find most tiring

  • Try getting your supermarket shopping delivered or opt for weekly food boxes so you don't even have to think about what to buy or what to cook - they choose the ingredients for you and give helpful recipe suggestions

  • Set yourself regular rest breaks during the day, having some quiet time where you relax, meditate or take short naps will mean you can cope with the day's activities better without feeling exhausted at the end of the day

  • Try doing some gentle exercises and stretches. These will help keep your muscles working properly and leave you feeling more energised

The Live Better With community recommends:

Meditation Made Easy, by Stephanie Brookes

Abel & Cole Superb Souping Box

Gentle Healing Yoga for Cancer Patients

                       

Hair Loss

Chemotherapy can cause hair changes which range from mild hair thinning to complete hair loss. For many, this change in their physical appearance has a huge impact on their self-esteem, but being prepared and finding ways to cope will make it easier to deal with.

Tips:

  • If you choose to use headwear, try a hat (or wig liner) made from bamboo. Bamboo is extremely breathable and three times more absorbent than cotton, helping you keep cool and sweat-free in hot weather. Bamboo also has antibacterial properties

  • Some people like to wear a sleep cap at night once they start losing their hair. It helps collect falling hairs inside so you don't wake up to hair on your pillows

  • Hair usually grows back 3-6 months after finishing chemo, but don't be surprised if it grows back differently to start with. It might be thinner and more fragile. Taking care of your hair at this stage is really important, so use a shampoo and conditioner that's made from natural ingredients with minimal chemicals.

  • If the thought of losing your hair is just too hard, you may want to opt for a cooling cap which you use during your treatment to help reduce hair loss

  • If you want to colour your hair, choose a hair dye free of chemicals, such as ammonia, resorcinol and parabens and with a low PPD level as these can irritate your skin

  • if you've noticed your eyebrows are thinning, you can use a brow kit to add definition and help achieve fuller looking eyebrows instantly. Natural, gel based ones are kinder to your skin

The Live Better With community recommends:

Elasto-Gel Hypothermia Cooling Cap

Wunderbow

Bamboo Hat

Men's Bold Beanie

Organic Surge Volume Boost Shampoo

NATURIGIN Hair Dye

 

Feeling Sick

Almost every patient on chemotherapy is likely to be affected by nausea and vomiting to some extent. There are several anti-sickness medications your doctor can give you and there are also several tried and tested non-medical ways of helping overcome your nausea

Top Tip:

"I used to find the smell of cooking food would really affect me, so I let my friends and family cook for me. It meant I could enjoy eating without those nauseating kitchen smells." - Julie

Tips:

  • Many people use acupressure wrist-bands in addition to their anti-sickness medicines to help relieve their nausea. This method has been proven to help reduce nausea in several scientific studies

  • Try taking ginger, another product proven to reduce nausea. You can drink it as a tea, cook with it or enjoy eating it as a sweet in the form of crystalised stem ginger

  • Avoid fried, fatty foods and try exploring with new recipes to find something that takes your fancy and doesn't make you feel worse

  • Relaxation techniques help control sickness for some people and if you start to associate eating with vomiting then practicing mindfulness exercises before meals might help overcome negative associations and ease anxieties surrounding food

The Live Better With community recommends:

Gin Gins Ginger Chews

Queasy Drops

Nourish: The Cancer Cookbook

Sea-Bands Anti-Nausea Wristbands

Our Funny Taste Kit

 

 

Constipation

This can be caused by the chemotherapy itself or by painkillers, especially morphine-based ones, as well as anti-sickness drugs. Your doctors will prescribe laxatives for you but there are also other lifestyle and diet related changes that will help

Top Tip:

"Walking was a great way to help keep my bowels soft and regular. It also had the added bonus of helping me feel more energised afterwards." - Andrew

Tips:

  • Try eating more fibre in your diet, this helps food pass through your bowels more easily. This means making sure you get enough of your 5-a-day and eating things like wholemeal bread and pasta, nuts and seeds

  • If you're finding it hard to eat enough fibre try drinking juices, smoothies or soups

  • Drinking plenty of water will also help. Water will help keep your stools softer, making them easier to pass

  • Gentle exercise is a good way to keep your bowel ticking over, try going for regular walks or exercise at home

The Live Better With community recommends:

Nutriseed Raw Chia Seeds

Fitbit

Morphy Richards Easy Blender

Aidapt Motorised Pedal Exerciser

 

 

Diarrhoea

Sometimes, your chemotherapy can have the opposite effect and cause loose watery stools. Diarrhoea can be a temporary, mild side effect. For others, it can be severe and if you are passing more than 4-6 loose stools a day you will need to tell your doctor or nurse, so they can investigate the cause and prescribe anti-diarrhoea medicines.

Top Tip:

"I normally drink lots of tea but when I get diarrhoea I swap my english breakfast for a cup of peppermint. It's not a diuretic and really helps me with the tummy cramps you can get with diarrhoea." - Sue

Tips:

  • Cut back on fibre until the diarrhoea stops as this will make your stools even more watery

  • Drink plenty of fluids, at least 2 litres a day to compensate for the increased water you're losing due to the diarrhoea. Remember that black tea, coffee and coke are diuretics, so avoid these

  • If you're passing lots of stool, the skin around your bottom might become a bit sore and red. Try using a barrier cream as soon as you think your skin is starting to get irritated and if it's really sore, or you're getting ulcers, let your doctor know

  • Eat small, frequent meals that are made from light foods. There are some great cookbooks to help with ideas.

The Live Better With community recommends:

The Ultimate Chemo Cookbook Set

Chemo Cookery Club: Over 150 Healthy Recipes

Twinings Pure Peppermint Tea

3M Cavilon Durable Barrier Cream

Loss of Appetite

Chemotherapy can affect your appetite, meaning you don't eat as much or get full after eating only a small mount, or you just don't feel hungry at all. It's important to address this as eating well is really important to help keep your body healthy and give you the energy you need to get through the day.

Top Tip:

"I used to add lots of butter and cream to my cooking to help give my husband extra calories when he was finding it hard to eat." - Maureen

Tips:

  • If you're not feeling hungry at meal times, try to keep snacks, such as nuts, grated cheese or dried fruit handy, so they're nearby whenever you do feel like having a nibble.

  • If you're really struggling with getting enough calories and nutrients in, a meal replacement shake might be a good option to help you top-up your intake.

  • Energy bars are another good option and these days there are all sorts of high energy, high protein bars to choose from

  • If you're worried you're not getting enough micronutrients in your diet, then supplements may be an option. But before taking any vitamins and minerals please speak to your doctor to avoid taking anything that may not be suitable for you

The Live Better With community recommends:

BioCare Adult Multivitamins & Minerals

Pulsin Beond Organic Bar

Sunwarrior Blend Chocolate Powder

Taste Changes

You may notice that food no longer tastes the same, that it's bland or that you have a strange metallic taste after eating certain foods, especially meat.

Top Tip:

"For me, sucking fresh pineapple helped get rid of the metallic taste. It was also an easy and tasty way to consume some calories." - Alistair

Tips:

  • Try experimenting with new ingredients and different recipes to find foods that taste good whilst you wait for your taste changes to pass. There are some really good cancer cook books which will helps with this

  • If you are suffering from a metallic taste when you eat, then try swapping your metal cutlery for bamboo ones, these help reduce that nasty metallic after-taste

  • Many people find that sucking on hard boiled sweets with strong sharp flavours (eg. lemon or mint) helps leave a more pleasant taste in the mouth

  • Use plenty of seasoning, herbs and spices to jazz up your meals and add flavour as lots of people find that food tastes more bland when they are undergoing chemotherapy

The Live Better With community recommends:

The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen

Oranurse Unflavoured Toothpaste

ALTOIDS Curiously Strong Mints

Bamboo Cutlery Set

Mouth Trouble

Chemotherapy can leave your mouth feeling dry and sore. You may notice swelling, ulcers or even infection. This is known as mucositis. Keeping your mouth moist and avoiding dental problems will be crucial in helping you have a comfortable mouth.

Top Tip:

"Brushing my teeth would really make my gums sore, so I started using a children's toothbrush, the bristles are much softer and kinder on my sensitive gums." - Isla

Tips:

  • At the first sign of mouth trouble start using protective gels to stop it getting worse. They will help create a protective coating to soothe any sores in your mouth

  • Make sure you brush your teeth regularly and use a mouthwash to reduce your risk of infections. If you're struggling to open your mouth because it's too sore, try using a finger brush

  • If your mouth feels dry try sucking on ice cubes, drinking plenty of fluids or using a saliva replacement spray or stimulant

  • You might find that acidic fruits and juices (such as oranges and grapefruits) sting your mouth. In this case, go for herbals, flavoured water or milk-based drinks instead

  • Mint flavoured toothpastes can also sting your mouth so use unflavoured toothpaste instead

The Live Better With community recommends:

Time to Eat! Kit

Mouth Trouble Box

Nature's Answer Periowash Mouthwash

Biotene Replacement Saliva Gel

Salivix Sugar-Free Saliva Stimulant Pastilles

Skin Things

Some people find that chemotherapy makes their skin dry, itchy and sensitive to light and chemicals. It can also be more prone to thinning and breaking down, so keeping your skin well hydrated is really important.

Top Tip:

"I found my normal moisturiser wasn't enough when I went through chemo, so I used oils instead and they really helped my very dry skin feel smooth and soft again." - Emma

Tips:

  • If you're noticing skin changes such as rashes, peeling or soreness, let your doctor or nurse know as sometimes these can need urgent treatment

  • Avoid swimming in chlorinated pools if you've got a rash or more sensitive skin as the chlorine can make it worse

  • WHen you're out and about in the sun, don't forget to use sunscreen, especially on your head if you've lost your hair. Go for SPF30 or higher

  • For dry skin, there are a lot of moisturisers out there to help soothe and heal your skin. Go for an unperfumed, metal-free, natural option

  • Some people find chemotherapy makes their skin itchy, so much so that it can keep them up at night. Use an itch relieving lotion to help ease the need to scratch

The Live Better With community recommends:

Defiant Beauty Set

Lyonsleaf Complete Skincare with Skin Rescue Set

Defiant Beauty Itchy Skin Oil

Badger Broad Spectrum Unscented Sport Sunscreen

Bio-Oil

Lyonsleaf Calendula Cream

Weak Brittle Nails

Just like your hair and skin, you're likely to notice changes in your nails too. This affects people differently and can range from discolouration to changes in nail strength or even loss of nails. Don't worry though, your nails should grow back to normal after your chemotherapy stops.

Top Tips:

"I noticed lots of ridges and lines appearing on my nails, so I kept them short as they were more obvious when my nails were longer." - Irene

Tips:

  • If you've noticed your nails are flaking or brittle, applying moisturising nail drops to your nail bed will help keep your nail bed healthy which will help improve nail strength.

  • If your nails are getting discoloured or you're noticing imperfections, try using a dark water-based nail varnish to cover them up

  • If your nails are really fragile, you might want to use cotton gloves around the house so as not to damage them further when you're doing the household chores

  • If you're really worried about losing your finger and toe nails you can wear special cooling gloves/slippers which reduce the amount of chemotherapy reaching your nails, and therefore helps prevent them from falling out

The Live Better With community recommends:

Hypothermia Cooling Gloves

Strong and Healthy Nail Kit

Defiant Beauty Set

Onicolife Drops for Chemo Nails

Defiant Beauty Nail Oil

Having Sex

You  may find that having chemotherapy has an impact on your sex life. This is completely understandable and a common experience for many men and women. But there are things you can do to help your sex life if you want to.

Top Tips:

"Using a lubricant really helped make having sex more comfortable for me as I suffered from a dry vsagina during my chemotherapy." - Sarah

Tips:

  • You should use a condom if you are having sex during and up to a week after a course of chemotherapy, to protect your partner from any chemotherapy that might have made its way into your semen or vaginal fluid

  • Chemotherapy can cause hormone changes triggering an early menopause in some women. One of the symptoms of this is a dry vagina, which can make having sex uncomfortable so try using a vaginal moisturiser or water-based lubricant

  • Some women find that yoga and acupuncture help with symptoms of hot flushes brought on by an early menopause

  • If you're struggling with feeling self-conscious or anxious about having sex, then try a few mindfulness exercises to help you block out any unwanted thoughts

  • Remember, even if you don't feel like having sex, there are other ways of being physically affectionate and intimate with your partner, such as kissing and cuddling

The Live Better With community recommends:

'Having Sex' Bundle

Yes Water-Based Organic Lubricant

Replens Vaginal Moisturiser

The Easy Yoga Workbook

Living in the Moment by Anna Black

Stress Relief

Going through chemotherapy is difficult, and it's only natural that at times you might notice that as well as having a physical impact it can also affect your psychological wellbeing. Managing feelings of stress or anxiety about your treatment may seem difficult but there are things you can do that will help you overcome any negative or intrusive thoughts.

Top Tips:

"Reading and watching movies always helped me relax, but nothing cleared my mind like painting and colouring." - Angela

Tips:

  • If you find it difficult to switch off unwanted thoughts or anxieties, then try some meditation or mindfulness exercises

  • Try doing breathing exercises which will help you refocus and calm your mind and body

  • If you find yourself worrying about things outside of your control, try putting that anxious energy into completing an adult colouring book

  • Lavender aromatherapy oils have been shown to help ease anxiety and stress, and they come in many different forms (eg. spritzers, oils, bath gels, etc.)

The Live Better With community recommends:

Aveeno Stress Relief Bundle

A Year of Living Mindfully, by Anna Black

The Art of Mindfulness - Peace and Calm Colouring Book

Light on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Breathing

I Am Here Now: A Creative Mindfulness Guide and Journal

Chemo Brain

Lots of patients talk about getting 'chemo brain', or finding it harder to concentrate and remember things. For others, having chemotherapy can cause feelings of stress and anxiety, and negative thoughts.

Top Tips:

"Sometimes I would forget things, silly things, and get really worked up about it. So I started writing post-it notes and popping them on the fridge to remind me." - Georgie

Tips:

  • Your brain is a muscle, so if you want it to work well you need to exercise it. Try doing some crosswords, puzzles or sudoku

  • Think about writing lists about what you need to do, things you need to buy, and where you left things

  • To help you keep track of appointments and meetings, pop it all on a wall calendar so it's easy to see and others can help remind you too

  • If you find it difficult to switch off unwanted thoughts or anxieties, then try some meditation or mindfulness exercises

  • Repeating things out loud chan help, for example, when you meet someone for the first time, repeat their name back to help you remember it

The Live Better With community recommends:

Chemo Brain Kit

The Brain Fitness Workout

Your Brain After Chemo, by Dan Silverman

Taking Medications

Chemotherapy is one type of medicine you'll be given to help treat your cancer, and this is usually through a drip or sometimes can be in tablet form too. You're also likely to start a whole host of other medicines to help manage the side effects of chemo./

Top Tip:

"I got a print out of my drug chart from the hospital to help me keep to the same routine at home." - Barry

Tips:

  • Getting a pill organiser is a really useful way of storing your medicines and helping you remember when to take each one

  • If you need a PICC line for your chemotherapy then having a PICC cover can be really handy, as it means you keep the port site clean and tidy and it helps to make them more discreet

  • If you're out and about, don't forget to take your pills with you so you don't miss any doses. There are lots of handy pocket pill holders to choose from

The Live Better With community recommends:

PICC Line Kit

Care + Wear PICC Line Cover

Apex Pocket Medicine Organiser

LimbO Adult Elbow / PICC Line Cover

Feeling Confident

For some people, the physical changes chemotherapy can cause are harder to cope with. That's not to say you can't be bald and beautiful, or that you need to look good to feel good, but if chemotherapy leaves you feeling self-conscious about your appearance then there are lots of things you can do to feel confident again.

Top Tip:

"I was really excited once my hair started to grow back. I found a hair dye that matched the colour of my hair before I had chemo, and it made me feel more like me again." - Linda

Tips:

  • If you lose your eyebrows, or notice they are thinning out, try using an eyebrow kit to make your eyebrows appear fuller

  • Try a strengthening mascara for your eyelashes, which contain natural ingredients to help nourish your lashes and simultaneously gives you the cosmetic effect of lengthened, voluminous lashes

  • If you notice your complexion is changing, becoming more pale or sallow, try adding some colour by using natural, mineral-based cosmetics such as blushers or even organic self-tan products

  • If you want to colour your hair when it grows back after chemo, then use a hair dye with a low PPD level and free of chemicals such as parabens and ammonia to help protect your hair and scalp

The Live Better With community recommends:

Feeling Confident Kit

Wow Brow Gift Set

TanOrganic Original Organic Self-Tan

WUNDERBROW (4 Shades)

Lavera Intensive Volumising Mascara

Lavera So Fresh Mineral Rouge Powder

NATURIGIN Hair Dye

In Pain

When you're going through chemo, you might notice a few more aches and pains, and funny sensations like tingling and numbness in your hands and feet, which is called neuropathy. You should let your doctor know if you are having pain or signs or neuropathy as they can prescribe painkillers or adapt your regimen if needed.

Top Tip:

"I wore light cotton gloves around the house when I was doing housework. It really helped protect my hands from that awful tingling sensation brought on by touching cold objects." - Betty

Tips:

  • If you get neuropathy, try wearing gloves and socks to help keep your hands warm and protect them from damage

  • Use pan-holders or cutlery-covers to avoid touching hot/cold metal objects which can exacerbate neuropathy symptoms

  • Some patients find that using certain FDA-approved homeopathic pain-relieving gels and creams can really help ease neuropathic pain

  • Using heat pads or cooling gels are great for stiff painful limbs or tummy cramps

  • Some people opt for TENS machines to help block nerve endings from picking up pain signals. This can work really well for some people, and it can be available through your hospital or hospice

The Live Better With community recommends:

Pain Relief Gift Set

Cosy Comfort Set

Patterson Lightweight Foam-Handled Cutlery Set

Biofreeze Pain Relieving Gel

Topricin Cream

TensCare Touch TENS Machine