Cancer and cancer treatment can cause various side effects in many people. This page covers some of the more common side effects of different treatments and of cancer itself. The type of treatments we are referring to in this section are chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.
The type and severity of side effects will depend on the type of treatment, the individual and the nature of cancer.
Not all or necessarily any will be experienced by everyone. It is important that you tell your doctor or nurse if you have any side effects that may be of concern.
It is also important to know that some side effects are temporary and will disappear when treatment ends, others may be more long lasting and require specialist management from your treating team.
Here you will find links to useful resources, such as reading, listening materials, useful websites that can help you cope with physical side effects of cancer and cancer treatments.
Possible cancer and cancer treatment-related side effects include:
What is fatigue and how might it affect you?
Fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer treatment. Fatigue, due to cancer treatment, is different from everyday tiredness and it can occur suddenly. Unlike everyday tiredness, it is not necessarily brought on by exercise or a long day’s activity. Resting does not always help relieve the fatigue and may affect you in the following ways:
- Affect how you think as well as how you feel.
- You may need more sleep.
- You may experience physical, emotional and/or mental exhaustion.
- Your body, especially your arms and legs, may feel heavy.
- You may have less desire to do normal activities, like eating or shopping.
- You may find it hard to concentrate or think clearly.
What causes fatigue?
It is common for chemotherapy to cause anaemia. This means there are fewer red blood cells to carry oxygen through your body. Anaemia can also be caused by radiotherapy and sometimes through loss of blood during surgery.
Other things related to your illness can make you feel tired such as not sleeping well, feeling stressed, feeling depressed, coping with infections, some drugs, not exercising, and not eating properly.
It is important that fatigue is identified and treated. Treatments are available for some causes of fatigue, so it is important to talk to your doctor if you are concerned.
Emerging evidence supports that fatigue can be managed by participating in an exercise program. You may like to participate in a Cancer Council WA Life Now exercise program. This is designed especially for cancer patients. This program is provided by a qualified exercise physiologist who carefully monitors your condition and recommends adjustments to the intensity and volume of your exercise program. If there is not a Cancer Council Life Now Exercise Program in your community, then talk with your doctor or call our 13 11 20 Cancer Information and Support Line about other options.
Further Information and downloadable resources:
Nausea and Vomiting
Some people experience nausea and vomiting due to the cancer itself, or while having their treatments. There are many ways to reduce nausea and vomiting and helpful medications that can be prescribed by your doctor. Don’t wait for these symptoms to become severe. It is easier to control nausea and vomiting if relief medications are prescribed early.
Information on nausea and vomiting
If you would like to read more tips about controlling nausea and vomiting, the publication Nutrition and cancer (available form our contains information on this topic.
Many people believe that cancer is always painful. This is not true. Some patients with cancer do not experience cancer-related pain.
Some patients do experience pain associated with their cancer and its treatment. If cancer does cause pain at some stage, it is usually possible to control it.
Information on managing pain
It may be necessary for your doctor to prescribe pain medications as an option during or after treatment, so you don’t experience too much discomfort. Pain relief medication helps patients stay as comfortable as possible. It is easier to control pain if relief medications are prescribed early. If you have any side effects from the pain medication, tell your doctor promptly so they can be controlled or prevented.
There are a few tips that can assist you to manage pain:
- Keep a diary of pain levels and other symptoms so that you can tell the doctor and the healthcare team if there are any changes.
- Use a pain scale to help you communicate the amount of pain. A scale from 1 to 10 is used. With 10 being the worst pain you have experienced.
- It can be important to take prescribed medication regularly.
- You may try relieving pain and discomfort with physical therapies such as hot water bottles, ice packs and/or massage, check with you doctor or specialist nurse.
If you would like more information about controlling pain you may want to look at our booklet Understanding cancer pain.
You may lose part or all of your hair whilst having treatment for cancer. Some Chemotherapy drugs can cause hair loss to the head and other parts of the body. Radiotherapy will only cause hair loss over the area being treated. Radiotherapy to the brain will cause hair loss on the head. Hair loss due to cancer treatment is usually temporary, it is a concern for most people, nevertheless. For more information on hair loss, please read our Hair loss fact sheet.
Free Wig Service
Hair loss is usually only temporary. You may like to wear a wig, hat, scarf or turbans.
Our Cancer Council WA Wig Service loans headwear at no cost during and after cancer treatment.
Trained volunteers assist patients with fitting a wig, turban or beanie to overcome the psychological challenge of hair loss. You can borrow wigs, turbans and scarves at no cost and for as long as required during cancer treatment.
The Cancer Council WA Wig Service brochure provides information about purchasing a wig. You may like to call our 13 11 20 Cancer Information and Support Line for a list of the various retail outlets that sell wigs suitable for cancer patients. Public patients may be able to access a voucher to pay for part of the price of a wig. Make enquiries at your treating hospital.
When you are first diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to focus on getting well. You may not think about or be interested in sexual contact or intimacy for a while. During or after treatment you may start to think about the impact of cancer on your sexuality.
Having cancer doesn’t mean you are no longer a sexual person. However, treatment for cancer such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy can affect your sexuality. This includes your interest in sex, your ability to give or receive sexual pleasure, how you see yourself and how you think others see you. Some of these effects are temporary while others are long lasting. All can be managed or controlled.
Sometimes a counsellor can help you find ways to help each other. You or your partner can also call our 13 11 20 Cancer Information and Support Line for information about appropriate counselling services.
Information on sexuality and cancer
The booklet Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer can help you understand and deal with the ways cancer and its treatment may affect your sexuality, find practical ways to adapt to any physical and emotional changes you experience, access available resources, medication, treatment and support and find new ways to enjoy intimacy.
Lymphoedema (pronounced lym-phoe-de-ma) is the swelling that results from accumulated lymph fluid when the lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes are not working effectively. Lymphoedema can occur when the lymph nodes are removed or damaged as a result of cancer surgery or radiotherapy treatment. Swelling is most common in the arms or legs but may also occur in the trunk, neck, face and genitalia. Although there is currently no cure for lymphoedema, it can be managed effectively to improve drainage, reduce swelling and reduce discomfort.
You may find the information factsheet understanding lymphoedema is helpful in understanding the signs and symptoms of lymphoedema following treatment for cancer and what you can do to help manage the condition.
Help to manage lymphoedema
There are lymphoedema therapists who are specially trained practitioners and may provide services to help you manage lymphoedema and are:
- Individually tailored treatment program
- Complex lymphatic therapy
- Self-management techniques
- Manual lymph drainage (MLD)
- Compression bandaging
- Prescription of graduated compression garments
- Kinesiology taping
Contact our 13 11 20 Cancer Information and Support Line , Australasian Lymphology Association, your GP or local cancer support service for information regarding the service situated closest to your area.
Costs of managing lymphoedema
The cost of treatment depends on your level of health insurance cover. Rebates may be available through your private health fund for treatment sessions and compression garments. Rebates can also be obtained through Medicare under a Chronic Disease Management (CDM) plan, your GP can help with these referrals.
Some public hospitals offer a lymphoedema management service that cancer patients can access free of charge. You may need to ask you general practitioner or local cancer support service for details. Information regarding costs and the relevant referral process should be obtained from the individual service provider in your area.
Programs that could help improve confidence in your appearance whilst having treatment
Look Good Feel Better offers workshops for men, women and teenagers that can assist you to face cancer with more confidence. These workshops teach you how to apply makeup, wigs, hats, scarves and turbans. They are a lot of fun and help boost your self-esteem, making you feel confident and positive during treatment.
Managing the side effects of cancer treatment
Reducing stress and finding a way to relax often help to reduce the impact of side effects of cancer treatment. Diversional activities such as listening to music, watching TV and regular exercise can be beneficial for some people. For others attending a Life Now Yoga or Meditation Group provided by Cancer Council WA can have added benefit of joining with other people who understand your needs.
For further information on coping with cancer and strategies to deal with symptoms you may like to call our 13 11 20 Cancer Information and Support Line to speak with one of our team.
Changes to your body
A patient who has had cancer is likely to be more aware of his or her body and any symptoms experienced can be frightening. You might find that a stomach upset, sore throat or cough worries you more than it used to because you think it could mean the cancer has returned or is more active. This is a natural reaction shared by many. When this happens to you speak to your doctor about your concerns.
The normal balance between your mind, body, emotions and spirit can become a significant challenge following a cancer diagnosis and it can be helpful to speak to a professional counsellor.
If you have a question about cancer, call our 13 11 20 Cancer Information and Support Line from Monday to Friday, during business hours.