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Overcoming the Fear of Treatment Side Effects


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Talk to someone who has recently gone through the same treatments so you know what to expect.

It is normal to fear the unexpected and worry that treatment will be difficult. In fact, fear of treatment side effects is common after a diagnosis of cancer. It is important to acknowledge these feelings, identify the underlying reasons, and share your concerns with your healthcare team. They can help you learn the facts about your situation, including which side effects you may or may not experience and what options you have for managing them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, no matter how “silly” you may think they sound.

Common Fears
Your fears about side effects may include:

Having discomfort, pain, nausea, or fatigue
Losing the ability to do regular, daily activities, such as work, household tasks, and social engagements
Experiencing changes in appearance, such as hair loss or scars
Losing control or not knowing what to expect
Feeling generally anxious about a treatment or a procedure (such a surgery or an MRI test)

Coping with Your Fears
Remember that the long-term goal of treatment is meant to help you, not hurt you. Know that many cancer treatments given today are less intense and less prolonged than previous treatments, that there are many medications that can help manage various side effects, and that most side effects go away once treatment ends.

Stay focused on the present; dwelling on things that may or may not happen is not productive.

Ask questions and seek the support of your healthcare team, including your doctor, nurse, pharmacist, and social worker. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what side effects are expected for each treatment and help you relieve these symptoms. For medications, your pharmacist is another helpful resource. Often, many side effects can be anticipated or prevented before treatment starts. Meanwhile, a social worker can provide counseling and referrals to community resources where you can find support.

Ask for information about how to reach the doctor’s office after hours and for a list of symptoms that may require immediate care. Stay involved in your care, and express your thoughts in the treatment decision-making process. This will give you a sense of control and help you feel less anxious.

Talk with your family and loved ones about your expectations and concerns. The help and support of family and friends can lighten the burden you feel, worrying that you may not be able to keep up with your responsibilities if you experience side effects from treatment. Your family and friends can learn more about supporting and talking with you during this time.

Find others who have recently gone through the same treatments so you know what to expect. You may find support groups in your local community or online. It can help to talk with others and know that you are not alone. However, it is also important to remember that each person’s experiences with side effects may be different from your own.

Talk with your employer so that he or she knows what you will be going through. Your employer may be willing to make some adjustments in your schedule while you undergo treatment.

Stay focused on the present; dwelling on things that may or may not happen is not productive. Keep a journal, which can help you express your feelings and document your journey. Try relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, music therapy, yoga, and meditation, which can help reduce anxiety. When you are less anxious, you can focus better and make more educated decisions. Give yourself time to grieve physical losses and to adjust to your new body, regardless of whether changes in your physical appearance are short term or long term.

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Reprinted with permission from ©2011 American Society of Clinical Oncology. All Rights Reserved.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2011.