Ovarian Cancer – Managing the Side Effects of Treatment

by Wendy Topeka BSN, RN, OCN

Photo by Cancer Type

Today, women should be able to maintain an active lifestyle throughout the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer.

When a woman hears the words “you have ovarian cancer,” it is from that very moment that a partnership begins between the woman, her family, and the doctors and nurses caring for her. This partnership is a key element in the treatment and management of ovarian cancer. It is this relationship that will help her tackle any side effect or challenge she may face related to this diagnosis.

The treatment and management of ovarian cancer in the 21st century is revolutionary. Multiple chemotherapeutic agents are being used, along with new and current research looking at medications that target ovarian cancer and have fewer side effects. This research is laying the foundation for healthcare professionals to have the ability to tailor a treatment plan specifically to each woman’s body and individual needs.

Side effect management in ovarian cancer begins with the first office visit and must be comprehensive. Palliative care in ovarian cancer should not be limited to the management of physical side effects related to medication administration. It is vital that healthcare professionals include the management of a woman’s emotional and psychological well-being, as well. When a woman’s physical and emotional well-being are cared for, treating and managing ovarian cancer becomes less challenging.

Side effect management in ovarian cancer is multifaceted.
One size does not fit all.

Author of Article photo

Wendy Topeka

One of the first questions I ask a woman before she starts her treatment for ovarian cancer is “What are your fears?” Many myths surround cancer treatment and the use of chemotherapy. As an oncology nurse, it is my responsibility to displace the myths and replace them with the truth. I tell women that knowledge is power and the fear of the unknown can be overcome.

Several of the most common side effects a woman may encounter during ovarian cancer treatment include

  • abdominal bloating, often with constipation, heartburn, and nausea;
  • generalized fatigue (a feeling of not being well rested);
  • hot flashes associated with the removal of the ovaries and the loss of estrogen production, which may lead to irritability, interrupted sleep, and vaginal dryness; and
  • a decreased immune system and blood counts, which increases the risk of infection.

Fortunately, not every woman will experience these side effects, and for those who do, most can be managed with the help of your healthcare team.

Side effect management in ovarian cancer is multifaceted. One size does not fit all when it comes to the side effects and the treatment of ovarian cancer. Women who are experiencing bowel issues may need to be put on a consistent bowel regimen with stool softeners and laxatives, antacids, and anti-nausea medications if necessary.

Women need to listen to their bodies and rest. Taking a short 20 to 30 minute nap can reenergize the body and cut down on the feeling of fatigue. Some women may require a prescription medication to help if fatigue is interfering with their quality of life.

For the woman having symptoms from a lack of estrogen, a prescription for estrogen replacement may be helpful. Talk with your doctor to see if you are eligible for estrogen replacement therapy. The introduction of certain medications, called growth factors, may be needed to help with the drop of certain blood counts during chemotherapy treatment.

Women and healthcare professionals must be flexible and open to incorporating any element that may complement the survivor’s plan of care. These elements may include health promotion with diet and exercise, complementary medicine with massage and art or music therapy, psychotherapy with a counselor or social worker, and the involvement of family and friends. With the development of these kinds of partnerships, successful side effect management is possible.

Today, women should be able to maintain an active lifestyle and a good quality of life throughout the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer may be part of who you are, but it is certainly not all of who you are.

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Wendy Topeka is clinical nurse manager for the Gynecologic Oncology Outpatient Infusion Unit at the Cooper Cancer Institute in Voorhees, NJ.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2010.