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7 Ovarian Cancer Treatment Side Effects and How To Manage Them

Posted on August 30, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Howard Goodman, M.D.
Article written by
Emery Haley, Ph.D.

  • Like all medications, life-saving ovarian cancer treatments can cause side effects.
  • There are many ways to manage potential side effects and feel better while treating your ovarian cancer.
  • Be sure to let your doctor know about any side effects you experience.

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.

1. Soothing Pain

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.

Nerve Pain

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:

  • Antiseizure drugs including gabapentin (Neurontin) or pregabalin (Lyrica)
  • Antidepressants including nortriptyline (Pamelor) and duloxetine (Irenka)
  • Topical treatments such as lidocaine or capsaicin, available as patches or creams

Alternative Approaches

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.

2. Reducing Fatigue

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:

  • Getting as much exercise as you can
  • Spreading out activities throughout the day and taking rest breaks in between
  • Getting help from others so you can save your energy for the most important things
  • Having a regular bedtime routine and getting enough sleep at night
  • Maintaining a balanced diet and good hydration
  • Asking your doctor to test for iron and vitamin deficiencies or anemia that can be treated

Like with pain, some members of MyOvarianCancerTeam report improvements in fatigue after trying alternative treatments. “I definitely recommend acupuncture for fatigue,” wrote one member.

Diet may help some people with fatigue, too. Mediterranean and plant-based diets reduced fatigue in people with cancer, according to a review of clinical trials.

3. Calming Stomach Troubles

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:

  • Drinking plenty of clear liquids
  • Eating more frequent, smaller meals
  • Avoiding foods that can irritate your digestive tract, such as dairy products, spicy foods, alcohol, high-fat foods, and beverages that contain caffeine
  • Trying probiotics
  • Sipping herbal teas with peppermint, ginger, or chamomile
  • Changing your fiber intake — less for constipation and more for diarrhea
  • Trying over-the-counter medications

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.

4. Getting Better Sleep

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:

  • Keeping a consistent bedtime
  • Using your bed only for sleep and sex
  • Turning off all electronics a couple of hours before bed
  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and smoking before bed
  • Keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool

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.

5. Fighting Anemia

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:

  • Blood transfusions
  • Iron infusions
  • Vitamin B12 shots
  • Injections of erythropoietin, a hormone that promotes the production of red blood cells

Your doctor will check for anemia or vitamin deficiencies that are associated with anemia during regular blood tests.

6. Healing Skin and Protecting Hair

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.”

Dress for Comfort

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.”

Tips To Protect the Scalp and Remaining Hair

Hair loss can be emotionally difficult, and newly exposed skin can be physically sensitive. Here are some tips for managing hair loss:

  • Be gentle to the remaining hair, using gentle hair products such as baby shampoos and avoiding perms, hair dye, and hot styling tools.
  • Moisturize the scalp with oil or lotion.
  • Use sunscreen or head coverings to protect your scalp from the sun.

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.

7. Coping With Early Menopause Symptoms

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:

  • Maintain a comfortable temperature with cooling fans and cold drinks.
  • Avoid caffeine and spicy foods.
  • Use vaginal moisturizers and lubricants for vaginal dryness and painful sex.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Use stress management techniques to relax and improve your mood.

Hormone Replacement Therapy

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.”

Work With Your Treatment Team

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.

Talk With Others Who Understand

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.

References
  1. Acetaminophen (Oral Route, Rectal Route) — Mayo Clinic
  2. Ibuprofen (Oral Route) — Mayo Clinic
  3. Naproxen (Oral Route) — Mayo Clinic
  4. Opioids: Using Them Safely, and Finding Better Ways To Manage Pain — Mayo Clinic
  5. Neuropathy (Peripheral Neuropathy) — Cleveland Clinic
  6. Gabapentin (Oral Route) — Mayo Clinic
  7. Pregabalin (Oral Route) — Mayo Clinic
  8. Nortriptyline (Oral Route) — Mayo Clinic
  9. Duloxetine (Oral Route) — Mayo Clinic
  10. Lidocaine (Topical Application Route) — Mayo Clinic
  11. Capsaicin (Topical Application Route) — Mayo Clinic
  12. 8 Non-Invasive Pain Relief Techniques That Really Work — Harvard Health Publishing
  13. Acupuncture — Mayo Clinic
  14. Biofeedback — Mayo Clinic
  15. Exercise To Treat Chronic Pain — University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics
  16. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation — Mayo Clinic
  17. Using Heat and Cold for Pain — Mayo Clinic
  18. Hypnosis — Mayo Clinic
  19. Stress Management — Mayo Clinic
  20. Music Therapy — Mayo Clinic
  21. Aromatherapy — Mayo Clinic
  22. Yoga Therapy: Relieve Pain, Manage Stress — Mayo Clinic
  23. Meditation — Mayo Clinic
  24. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) — Cleveland Clinic
  25. Fatigue — MedlinePlus
  26. Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Patients — Cancer Research UK
  27. Basic Information About Sleep and Fatigue — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  28. Nutrition and Coping With Cancer Symptoms — UCSF Health
  29. Could a Vitamin or Mineral Deficiency Be Behind Your Fatigue? — Harvard Health Publishing
  30. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — Mayo Clinic
  31. Chemotherapy Nausea and Vomiting: Prevention Is Best Defense — Mayo Clinic
  32. Diarrhea: Cancer-Related Causes and How To Cope — Mayo Clinic
  33. Bowel Changes — Cancer Council NSW
  34. Best Over-the-Counter Solutions to Your Digestive Problem — KnowYourOTCs.org
  35. Types of Anti-Sickness Drugs — Cancer Research UK
  36. Sleep Problems in People With Cancer — National Cancer Institute
  37. Sleep Disturbance, Distress, and Quality of Life in Ovarian Cancer Patients During the First Year Post Diagnosis — Cancer
  38. Sleep Disorders (PDQ) — Patient Version — National Cancer Institute
  39. Insomnia Treatment: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Instead of Sleeping Pills — Mayo Clinic
  40. Prescription Sleeping Pills: What’s Right for You? — Mayo Clinic
  41. Anemia: Cancer Treatments Side Effect — National Cancer Institute
  42. Anemia — Mayo Clinic
  43. Epoetin Alfa, Injection — MedlinePlus
  44. Coping With Hair Loss and Thinning — Cancer Research UK
  45. Tips To Cope With Itching — Cancer Research UK
  46. Dry Skin — American Cancer Society
  47. Skin Rash — American Cancer Society
  48. Mouth Sores Caused by Cancer Treatment: How To Cope — Mayo Clinic
  49. Treatment-Induced Menopause — Canadian Cancer Society
  50. Hormone Replacement Therapy May Improve Survival for Women With Ovarian Cancer — National Cancer Institute
  51. Pelvic Floor Dysfunction — Cleveland Clinic
  52. Cancer and Fasting/Calorie Restriction — UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Health
  53. Mediterranean Diet for Heart Health — Mayo Clinic
  54. Meatless Meals: The Benefits of Eating Less Meat — Mayo Clinic
  55. Nutritional Interventions for Treating Cancer-Related Fatigue: A Qualitative Review — Nutrition and Cancer
  56. Massage Therapy for Cancer Patients: A Reciprocal Relationship Between Body and Mind — Current Oncology

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Howard Goodman, M.D. is certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and specializes in the surgical management of women with gynecologic cancer. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.. Learn more about him here.
Emery Haley, Ph.D. is a nonbinary science communicator with a passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM. Learn more about them here.

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