Cancer: During Treatment

What will happen to me during my cancer treatment?

What happens to you during your cancer treatment depends on a number of factors. These include what kind of cancer you have, how advanced it is and what kind of treatment you're getting. Chemotherapy (using drugs to kill cancer cells), radiotherapy (using radiation to kill cancer cells), surgery and biological therapy (using proteins to boost your immune system) are the most common types of cancer treatments.

Don't hesitate to talk to your doctor about any questions and concerns you have about your treatment. No question you have about the disease or your treatment is "dumb." If something is on your mind, it's definitely worth asking about. By getting answers to your questions, you can become a more active participant in your care.

What can I do about side effects?

Cancer treatment affects every person differently. Some people have few side effects or even none at all. However, the side effects of cancer treatment make many people feel very sick.

Your doctor will tell you what kinds of side effects you might expect with your cancer treatment. He or she will also tell you which side effects are unusual and mean you need to call the doctor's office if you experience them.

Don't downplay your side effects. It's important to tell your doctor, members of your care team and the people around you how you are feeling. If you feel very sick, very tired or are in a lot of pain, your doctor may be able adjust your treatment or give you other medicine to help you feel better.

Will I lose my hair?

Radiotherapy to the head and some types of chemotherapy can cause people to lose their hair. Other types of treatment do not cause this side effect. If you're undergoing chemotherapy, ask your doctor whether the drugs you're taking can cause hair loss. Losing your hair can be a devastating experience. If your doctor tells you this might happen, try to prepare yourself. Decide what you want to do if you start to lose your hair.

Some people who lose their hair during cancer treatment wear a wig or hairpiece. Others cover their heads with hats, scarves or turbans. Still others leave their heads uncovered. Do what feels right for you. Many people switch back and forth, depending on where they are, who they're around and what they're doing.

If you decide that you want to wear a wig or hairpiece, it's a good idea to pick one out before you start losing your hair. That way, you can match it to your natural hair color and texture. Some shops specialize in wigs and hairpieces for people who have cancer. You may also be able to order your wig or hairpiece over the Internet.

If you decide to shave your head or leave it uncovered, be sure to protect your skin with sunscreen, a hat or a scarf when you're outside.

If you do lose your hair during radiotherapy to the head or chemotherapy, it will almost always grow back after you finish your treatment. However, it might be a different color or texture when it grows back.

What if I don't feel like eating?

You may not feel well enough to eat while you're getting cancer treatment. But it's important to eat as much as you feel you can. Food helps your body rebuild new, healthy cells and also helps boost your energy level.

It may help to eat several small meals a day instead of three large ones. Try eating bland foods like saltine crackers, plain toast and broth. Sip water, juices and soda. Ask your doctor about whether you should take a nutritional supplement, such as Ensure. Avoid spicy foods or foods with strong odors if they make you feel nauseous. You may also find that it's easier to eat and drink lukewarm food and beverages.

Some people who have cancer (especially people who are being treated with chemotherapy) have problems with mouth soreness or sensitivity. This may make it even more difficult to eat. Try eating soft, bland food or cooked food that has been pureed in a blender. If sores develop in your mouth, tell your doctor. These sores can become infected and cause serious problems. You may want to drink through a straw to bypass mouth sores. Also, try rinsing your mouth with 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in 8 ounces of water. This can help prevent mouth infections and help your mouth heal faster.

When you do feel like eating, try to get as much protein and as many calories as possible. Ask your doctor whether you need to add certain nutrients or types of food to your diet. Your doctor may want you to visit a nutritional counselor, who can help you figure out ways to get the right amount of protein, nutrients and calories. If you find you can't eat at all for more than 24 hours, talk to your doctor. He or she needs to know that you're not getting the nutrition you need.

Will I be able to work?

You may not know the answer to this question until after you've started your treatment. Some people find that the effects of cancer and its treatment make them feel so sick that they're not able to work at all. Others are able to maintain their normal schedule or adjust it to work around their treatment.

Working during treatment can help keep your mind on things other than your cancer. You may also feel better knowing that you're continuing your "normal" routine. Many people who decide to work during treatment also find that they receive a great deal of support from their employers and coworkers.

If you want to continue working during cancer treatment, explore ways to make the most of your time. Try scheduling treatments for the end of the week, so that you'll have the weekend to recover. Talk to your employer about working part-time or working from home. If necessary, ask coworkers to assist you with some of your tasks or duties. They will probably be eager to help.

How will I feel emotionally during treatment?

It's normal to feel helpless, angry, scared and depressed during cancer treatment. You will probably feel all of these emotions and more while you're going through treatment. On some days, you may feel like the treatment is not worth it.

Try to find a support system that you can rely on during these times. Many people count on family members and friends for support. Other people prefer to talk to people who are also going through cancer treatment. Cancer support groups can help people who have cancer and their family members cope with the disease and its treatment. Your doctor can suggest ways to find a support group, or you may contact a local hospital or the local chapter of the American Cancer Society (check the phone book or visit their Web site). The National Cancer Institute is another resource for support group information. (See "Other Organizations" for links to these organization's Web sites.)

Keeping your mind active can also help. Try to stay busy by knitting, doing jigsaw or crossword puzzles, watching movies or playing games with friends and family. Exercise can help, too, but only if you're feeling strong enough. Talk to your doctor about what physical activity is best for you.

Some research, as well as the experience of many people who have cancer and their doctors, shows that a positive outlook may improve the health of people who go through cancer treatment. This positive-thinking approach can include forming a mental picture of how well your treatment and your body's immune system are fighting the cancer (also called "visualizing").

It's also important to talk to your doctor about your emotions. Depression is common during cancer treatment. If it is a problem for you, your doctor may be able to prescribe medicine to help you feel better.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.

Other Organizations


Written by editorial staff.

American Academy of Family Physicians

Reviewed/Updated: 07/08
Created: 06/02