Patient Blogs | Ovarian Cancer
We’re Under Siege! – Tips for Battling Treatment Side Effects
photo of woman getting tissue and drinking tea

When your world explodes with those horrid words, “It’s cancer,” you’re immediately drafted into a war to save your life. The doctors and nurses begin to hit you with lifesaving, cancer-killing poison, and casualties are inevitable. Taste buds, hair follicles, mucosal linings, nerves, muscles tone, stamina, and strength can get hit hard.

Depending on your particular treatment and your particular body chemistry, you can experience mild or severe side effects, neither of which are an indicator of how well the drugs are working. While the doctors are responsible for slaying cancer cells, it’s your job to defend the castle, mainly your body. So, let’s suit you up with defensive armor, warrior woman!

Here are some tips and tricks that my friend, Kathy S. (who is currently duking it out in the trenches), and I have employed.

Guarding the Mouth:

  • Use plasticware if silverware gives you a tinny taste in your mouth. Or use your fingers. No one is going to tell you that you can’t do something when you’re fighting cancer!
  • Suck on hard candy if you get a bad taste in your mouth while getting treatment.
  • Eat soft foods if you have mouth sores. I became a connoisseur of oatmeal.
  • Cool, wet, soft foods like watermelon, ice cream, and pudding can feel good in the mouth. Also ask your nurse for mouthwashes that can help soothe and protect.

Defending the Nose:

  • Keep tissues nearby. Some drugs make your nose run. I also cried a lot. Without nose hairs (where do they go?!), your nostrils can become mini waterslides. So keep those hankies somewhere near you or up your sleeve like a well-prepared grandma.
  • Use a dab of coconut oil on a cotton swab just inside your nose if your nostrils burn or if you have a dry/bleeding nose.
  • If your nose starts to hurt sharply, try gently squeezing it. This helped me long enough to get some coconut oil inside to soothe the burn.

Shielding the Skin:

  • Lotion is your friend when skin becomes dry or you have rashes/blisters. Liberally apply a no-perfume lotion made for sensitive skin.
  • If your hair follicles are inflamed when you lose your hair, get a soft hat to wear. I couldn’t put my head on my pillow without a fun fur hat because my scalp hurt. You can also try a soft pillowcase.
  • Rashes hurt more with heat, so avoid heat and friction if you have them. Keep a soft cold pack in the fridge to apply to rash patches. You can make one out of a sock filled with rice or one of those filled spa masks.
  • If you’re plagued by itching skin, wear something to cover it while you sleep so you won’t scratch it open. I wore tall socks to combat itching as my nerves grew back along my legs.

Fighting Body Pain:

  • Showers can feel wonderful or painful, depending on your nerves and skin condition. I took three warm showers a day just to let the warm water soothe me. Avoid hot water, because it dries out your skin.
  • If you have a port-a-cath, place a little pillow over it if the seatbelt lays across it in the car. There are pillows/pads that are designed to Velcro around seatbelts for that purpose.
  • Get creative with pillows. At one time, I had seven around me in the bed to prop up my sore body just right.
  • If you’re cold or achy (and can handle heat), have someone throw a soft blanket in the dryer for a few minutes and then wrap it around you. If you’re getting treatment, don’t be afraid to ask for their warmed blankets. They are the bomb!
  • To combat terrible foot pain from neuropathy, get a protective pair of shoes (one size larger than your normal size) to wear in the house. I prefer slip-ons/clogs. They will protect your feet from stubbed toes and stray toy mines. (A Lego dropped me like a rock once.)
  • When dealing with an intensely painful situation, remind yourself that pain is just a signal to your brain that something is happening to your body. Pain is different from suffering, which is the emotional response (feeling that you’re being attacked, worry it won’t end). Try to separate the pain (signal) from the suffering (emotion). Imagine pain in one corner of the room and suffering in the other, then stare at the pain corner and remind yourself, over and over, that it’s just a signal.

Strengthening Internal Defenses:

  • Do everything you can to avoid getting constipated. Prunes (which my mother forced on me, Love you, Mom!), Smooth Move tea, over-the-counter fiber supplements, slow yoga, lots of water (with flavoring if your injured taste buds are making water taste awful).
  • Keep moving. No, I’m not talking about going for a jog or signing up for a 5K. But keeping your body moving helps work the toxins out and combats clenching muscles. I recommend a gentle exercise like chair yoga, tai chi, stretching, or walking with a friend.
  • If you’re trying to consume lots of nutrients, try juicing or making smoothies. I really liked ones with fruit, spinach, and kale in them (with the sweet fruits to make it yummy). The green stuff makes the color muddy. If that bothers you, put it in a cup that’s not clear. I used a straw to avoid the sores in my mouth.
  • If you’re plagued with insomnia, implement all the basic anti-insomnia tactics (no electronics 2 hours before bed, keep the room dark and cool, maintain a wind-down routine, no caffeine after noon). If you’re still experiencing insomnia, just know that you’re not alone. The arsenal of drugs I took kept me up no matter what I tried. So breathe and tell yourself it’s OK. And nap whenever the feeling strikes. I don’t recommend sleeping aids, but talk with your doc about them if you’d like. The one I tried gave me a terrible taste in my mouth (even without taste buds!) and I still woke up in the middle of the night.

And Also:

  • Wear clothes without metal fasteners or underwire on them to CT scans so you don’t have to take anything off. I wore comfy sweatpants and a soft sports bra under my shirt. And socks because it’s always cold in scanning rooms.
  • Hate needle sticks? I was phobic about needles when I was diagnosed. And yet I got 108 sticks in the first year of my treatment without running from the room screaming. How do I know the number? Because I kept a star chart and gave myself a gold star for every stick I got. Hey, it worked to potty train my kids, and it helped me deal with the fear. Now I have a healthy respect for needles, but I don’t fear them.
  • When you start to panic about dying, start saying your positive affirmations aloud over and over until you convince your body to calm down. I will do a post on fighting fear in June.
  • Create a sanctuary. Do you have a porch, window seat, or place you like to sit in the house? Make it your healing place. Add a colorful blanket and pillow. Have your favorite puzzles, books, and list of positive affirmations nearby. Perhaps a candle to light or pictures of past vacations. I created a sanctuary on my back porch so I could watch the birds and keep track of them in a little book. Let everyone know that this spot is yours.

Some tips will work for you, and some will be “meh, not so much.” But taking back some control of this battle you’ve been thrown into and protecting “the castle” will help you triumph after the siege is over.



Photo Credit: Stockbyte via Getty Images

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Heather McCollum

Heather McCollum

Diagnosed since 2011

Heather McCollum is a 10-year survivor of ovarian cancer living near Raleigh, NC. When she isn't helping to educate women about this disease, she's busy raising her three kids, taking care of her rescued animals, and writing Scottish historical romance novels. She loves dragonflies, hot chai tea lattes, and supporting other cancer warriors as they maneuver through their own journeys.

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