Like all medications and medical procedures, ovarian cancer treatments can cause many side effects. Although treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and maintenance therapy fight ovarian cancer, as one MyOvarianCancerTeam member put it, “The side effects can be daunting.”
There are many ways to manage these side effects and feel better while treating ovarian cancer. Here are some tips for coping with seven common side effects.
Pain can be a side effect of treatments like surgery and chemotherapy. The type, severity, and source of the pain determine how to treat it. Most post-surgical pain can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers including acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (sold as Advil or Motrin) or naproxen (sold as Aleve). More intense pain may be treated with opioid medications.
Burning or tingling pain, called neuropathic pain or neuropathy, can be a side effect of chemotherapy. It typically occurs in the fingertips or toes and may go away to some degree after chemotherapy is stopped.
Doctors can prescribe medication for neuropathic pain such as:
Some members of MyOvarianCancerTeam have shared that taking an antihistamine such as loratadine (Claritin) before chemotherapy helped prevent pain. “I found that if I took it two days before chemo and continued for a week, the bone pain was nonexistent.”
Ask your cancer care team before trying different medications. Some may cause dangerous drug interactions with other medications.
Some people living with pain from cancer treatments find relief using alternative therapies such as acupuncture, biofeedback, or meditation.
Fatigue — an extreme level of tiredness that is different from sleepiness — is one of the most common symptoms experienced by people undergoing treatment for cancer.
Some strategies for coping with fatigue include:
Like with pain, some members of MyOvarianCancerTeam report improvements in fatigue after trying alternative treatments. “I definitely recommend acupuncture for fatigue,” wrote one member.
Many team members have shared ways they cope with gastrointestinal (GI) side effects like nausea and vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and changes in appetite.
Strategies for coping with gastrointestinal side effects include:
Some MyOvarianCancerTeam members report feeling better when they use these strategies. One member said, “I have been managing GI problems with more frequent small meals focused on protein, and peppermint or ginger tea.”
If your digestive side effects don’t improve with any of these tips, talk to your doctor about prescription medications for GI issues.
Sleep struggles are a common experience among people living with cancer, and they have a huge impact on quality of life. Whether your sleep issues are due to pain, night sweats, anxiety about cancer, or other issues, getting enough quality sleep is vital to feeling your best.
Sleep hygiene is a collection of basic strategies proven to improve the quality of sleep. These strategies include:
Members of MyOvarianCancerTeam often share tips for what helps them get better sleep. “For comfort, I lie on top of an electric heated blanket and take a muscle relaxant before bed,” wrote one.
Many members report some improvement using alternative treatments: “A tart cherry capsule after dinner, before I go to bed, really helps me sleep,” one said. Another shared, “Marijuana works great for relaxation and sleep.”
Some recommend over-the-counter remedies: “I found Benadryl helps me get a few hours of shut-eye at times.” Another member reported working with her doctor to make changes to her treatments in the hopes of better sleep. “We are going to reduce one of my medications, and I have to take it mid-day instead of at night.”
Always talk to your doctor before adding or changing medications.
Physical activity during the day also helps some members get to sleep. “I’ve noticed that I sleep better if I have gotten some exercise during the day, even if it just means a gentle walk around and around inside the house for 20 minutes,” shared one member.
If none of these work for you, talk to your doctor about whether prescription sleep medications could be safe and effective for you.
Anemia occurs when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body. It can be caused by chemotherapy and radiation and can cause or worsen fatigue, weakness, headaches, and chest pain.
If you have anemia, it may help to change your diet or add supplements to make sure you get enough iron, folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin C, all of which can help with low iron. “I make sure to eat spinach, raisins, broccoli, and things high in iron,” shared one member of MyOvarianCancerTeam who was coping with anemia. “I craved turnip greens. Listen to your body and get as much rest as possible,” recommended another.
If you have severe anemia, your doctor may prescribe treatment such as:
Your doctor will check for anemia or vitamin deficiencies that are associated with anemia during regular blood tests.
Dry skin and rashes are common with many types of ovarian cancer treatments. Keeping skin well-moisturized is vital. One member who underwent radiation said, “I had a little itching and redness in the area, but lotion helped.”
Another member described their challenges with side effects of chemo and said, “My scalp got very dry when I was bald. I bought some argan oil to rub into my skin, and it made a big difference.”
Dry skin is related to overall dehydration, so any effort to keep moisture in your body and skin is worthwhile. As one member shared, “Some of my skin was like sandpaper, but Vaseline actually helps it. It also helps to hydrate.”
You can also choose clothes that will help protect your skin. “My skin is very sensitive and fragile,” wrote one member. “Anything that binds or rubs irritates it. I had to avoid harsh material like denim. I wore LOTS of sun dresses this summer. And lined Crocs work pretty well for footwear.”
Hair loss can be emotionally difficult, and newly exposed skin can be physically sensitive. Here are some tips for managing hair loss:
Some MyOvarianCancerTeam members recommend cutting or shaving hair to help with scalp discomfort. “The longer your hair, the more tender your scalp will be,” shared one member. Another wrote, “I was told to just shave it off. I did and it felt better! I didn’t like it, but my head wasn’t as sensitive.”
If you don’t find relief from skin problems with these tips, talk to your doctor about prescription creams.
Treatment for ovarian cancer often involves oophorectomy (the surgical removal of one or both ovaries). For people who have not yet gone through natural menopause, the removal of both ovaries results in sudden surgical menopause. Surgical menopause can lead to all of the typical menopause symptoms: hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness and painful sex, weight gain, and changes in mood and sex drive.
There are many options to help with managing surgical menopause symptoms:
Talk to your doctor about hormone replacement therapy (HRT). This is a common treatment during menopause, but not as much is known about the risks and benefits for those with ovarian cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, estrogen-only hormone therapy is safe, and possibly beneficial, for people who have completed treatment for epithelial ovarian cancer.
For those who don’t want or can’t take HRT, take heart: It gets better. “I was told there wasn’t much to be done about it, but it really only lasted for a few months,” said one member. “Hopefully, your body will adjust soon.”
Always speak to your oncology care team before you make adjustments to your treatment plan, including adding dietary supplements or over-the-counter medications. Be open about your side effects and concerns to help make sure you have productive conversations with your oncologist about your treatment options and quality of life.
MyOvarianCancerTeam is the online social network for people with ovarian cancer and their loved ones. On MyOvarianCancerTeam, more than 4,900 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with ovarian cancer.
Do you have any additional tips for coping with the side effects of ovarian cancer treatment? Share them in the comments below, or start a conversation on MyOvarianCancerTeam.