- Cancer Information
- Supporting someone with cancer
- Caring for someone with cancer
- Your role as a carer
- Medical care
- Monitoring symptoms and side effects
Monitoring symptoms and side effects
Cancer itself can cause a range of symptoms, and cancer treatments often cause side effects.
Learn about these common symptoms and side effects:
Below are some tips for helping someone manage these issues. You can call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit your local Cancer Council website to find out more about these and other common side effects experienced by people with cancer.
Some side effects go away quickly; others can take weeks, months or even years to improve. Some side effects may be permanent. A person’s body will cope with the treatment and recovery in its own way. It is important not to compare the person to others. It’s also important to let the treatment team know of symptoms and side effects – they will often be able to suggest medicines and other treatments that can help.
Some people experience late side effects. These are problems that develop months or years after treatment finishes. They may result from scarring to parts of the body or damage to internal organs. Talk to your doctor about whether the person is at risk of developing late effects from treatment.
The treatment team will let you know the side effects that need to be closely monitored and when you need to contact them.
When to seek urgent medical attention
- a temperature of 38°C or above
- chest pain or shortness of breath
- persistent or severe nausea or vomiting
- redness or swelling around the site of an injection
- severe headache with a stiff neck
- chills with shaking or shivering
- severe abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhoea
- unusual bleeding (e.g. nose bleeding for over 30 minutes)
- incontinence or trouble passing urine and/or leg weakness
- any serious unexpected side effects or sudden deterioration in the person’s health.
Ways to manage common symptoms and side effects
- Encourage the person to take medicine as prescribed to keep on top of the pain. Contact their treatment team if the pain is hard to manage. It may take time to find the right pain medicine.
- Always talk to the doctor before stopping or changing the dose.
- Use a pain scale or pain diary to help you understand the intensity of the pain and the need for extra doses.
- Try relieving pain and discomfort with hot water bottles or heat packs (check the temperature first), ice packs or gentle massage.
- Understand the different roles of long-acting and short-acting pain medicines and support the person with cancer to use them appropriately.
- Encourage the person you are caring for to ask their doctor for different anti-nausea medicines until they find one that works well for them.
- Offer the person their favourite or well-tolerated foods often. Most people don’t need a strict diet during cancer treatment, though you should follow the advice of the health professionals.
- Provide nutritious snacks and drinks throughout the day.
- Focus on creating a pleasant atmosphere for meals and sitting together and talking.
- Celebrate the small amounts the person eats rather than how much is not finished.
- Offer small, simple meals.
- If the person you care for is losing weight or feels too nauseous to eat, talk to their doctor to identify the cause. The person may need medicine changes or a review by a dietitian or pharmacist to arrange dietary supplements.
- Find an accredited practicing dietitian at Dietitians Australia.
Listen to our podcast on Appetite Loss and Nausea
- Use a handheld fan to direct a cool stream of air across the person’s face.
- Place a pillow on a table so the person can lean forward with an arm crossed over the pillow – this allows their breathing muscles to relax.
- Maintain a calm atmosphere where possible as anxiety can make breathlessness worse.
- Play a relaxation recording to help the person control anxiety that contributes to breathlessness. Listen to our meditation and relaxation audio tracks now. You can also ask a doctor or GP about seeing a psychologist to help manage anxiety.
- Talk to the treatment team about breathing exercises, equipment and treatments to manage breathlessness.
- Set up a recliner chair to help the person sleep in a more upright position.
- Help the person to set small, manageable goals for the day, and suggest they take regular breaks before they become too tired.
- Encourage the person to say no to activities they really don’t feel like doing.
- Find ways for the person to do some gentle physical activity every day – research shows that exercise can reduce fatigue. Talk to the treatment team about what sort of exercise would be suitable. This may include walking or strength-training exercises. See an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist for other suggestions.
- Establish a regular bedtime routine and set up a calm sleeping environment. Ensure the room is dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature. Soothing music helps some people drift off.
Listen to our podcast on Managing Cancer Fatigue
Podcast: How to Help Someone with Cancer
Dr Laura Kirsten, Principal Clinical Psychologist, Nepean Cancer Care Centre, NSW; Mary Bairstow, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Anne Booms, Nurse Practitioner – Supportive and Palliative Care, Icon Cancer Centre Midland, WA; Dr Erica Cameron-Taylor, Staff Specialist, Department of Palliative Care, Mercy Hospice, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Tracey Gardner, Senior Psychologist, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council Queensland; Louise Good, Cancer Nurse Consultant, WA; Verity Jausnik, Senior Policy Officer, Carers Australia; David Larkin, Cancer Supportive Care Manager, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital and Health Service, ACT; Kate Martin, Consumer; John McMath, Consumer; Simone Noelker, Physiotherapist and Wellness Centre Coordinator, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre, VIC; Tara Redemski, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Dean Rowe, Consumer; Chris Sibthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.