It’s natural to have concerns about physical changes that could happen during and after cancer treatment. Your health care team can help you learn what to expect. They will explain what is likely to occur based on the treatment method and your type and stage of cancer.
Questions to Ask Your Health Care Team About Physical Effects
- Will treatment leave a scar?
- How might my appearance change?
- Will my hair fall out?
- Can the medications make me lose or gain weight?
- Will the treatments put me at risk for a serious infection?
- What should I do if I have fatigue and a loss of energy?
- Will I be able to work or be active during treatment?
- Can cancer and treatment affect my sexuality or fertility?
- Will cancer treatment be painful?
Cancer treatments affect each person differently. Some notice few physical changes. Others may experience visible changes, such as hair loss, weight gain or weight loss. Some changes occur right away. Others can happen long after cancer treatment is completed.
Take time to learn enough about your type of cancer to understand all that the health care team tells you. Many nonprofit cancer organizations and health care facilities can also help you learn about cancer. They provide diagnosis and treatment information for specific types of cancer.
Keep a Pain Diary
You will need to describe your pain to your health care provider. A pain diary tracks when and how much pain you experience. Ask your health care team what can be done to treat the pain. Ask about the risks and benefits that can come from each of the suggested treatments. Here’s a guide for keeping a pain diary:
Choose a number on a scale of 1 through 10 to let your providers know how much pain you have:
0 no pain
1–5 mild to medium pain
6–9 medium to severe pain
10 the worst pain possible
- Keep track of your pain scale numbers in a notebook or your Livestrong Guidebook Planner and Journal, in the section called During Treatment: Working With My Health Care Team.
- Write down the dates you have pain and note how long it lasts.
- Describe your pain by using terms such as “burning,” “aching” or other words.
- Write down what you did to treat the pain and how well it worked.
- Take this information with you each time you see your health care provider.
Talk with your health care team if you are having pain. No one will think that you’re complaining. Most pain can be medically managed. There's no need to put up with it. Pain can interfere with healing and ignoring the pain can make it harder to manage over time.
After telling your health care team about your pain, they’ll help you develop a plan to manage pain. Learn about the risks and benefits of each of the options before starting treatment.
Common pain management methods:
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications.
- Physical therapy.
- Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.
- Counseling to help cope with stressors.
Complementary or alternative pain management methods:
- Physical or occupational therapy.
- Yoga, tai chi or other types of exercise.
- Meditation or relaxation.
- Diet changes.
- Biofeedback treatments.
If your pain continues or you have trouble getting treatment, ask for a referral to a pain specialist. The National Cancer Institute offers a great deal of information about living with cancer. This includes a booklet about the types and causes of cancer pain as well as pain control.
You may be concerned that cancer could affect your sexual life. This may or may not be true. Physical and emotional changes often occur during treatment. Some changes, such as fatigue, may lessen interest for a while.
However, going through cancer treatment does not mean that you cannot be intimate. Many people are able to continue their sexual relationship or start a new one. Trust and closeness with a loved one may actually increase as you go through the cancer journey together.
Some people find it hard to discuss sexual issues. However, talking with your health care provider or other members of your health care team may be the only way to get the answers you need. If you have specific concerns, ask for a referral to a licensed therapist who can help with sexuality during cancer. Many cancer care centers have these therapists on staff.
Questions to Ask Your Health Care Provider about Fertility
- Will this type of treatment affect my future ability to have children?
- Are there other treatments with fewer fertility side effects?
- Is it safe to delay treatment until after a fertility preservation procedure?
- Will you refer me to a fertility specialist?
If the ability to have children in the future is important to you, talk with your health care provider before treatment begins. Also, some types of cancer or treatments can cause birth defects in unborn children. Birth control can be important during this time.
Questions to Ask Your Fertility Specialist
- Do you have experience using freezing techniques (for sperm, eggs, ovarian tissue or embryos)?
- What is the best way to increase my chances for fertility in the future?
- What are the costs for fertility procedures?
- Will my insurance cover all the costs?
Your provider can help you find information and other resources, such as Livestrong Fertility and Oncofertility Consortium to help you preserve your ability to have children. If needed, ask to be referred to a fertility specialist. Talk with this specialist about fertility preservation before you begin cancer treatment.
Cancer treatment can make you feel tired and weak. Yet, many people with a cancer diagnosis find that physical activity helps them feel better. Being active may help you regain strength, control stress and focus your mind in a positive way. Some enjoy walking, bicycling or swimming. Others do activities like dancing or practicing yoga or tai chi.
Ask your health care provider if physical activity is right for you. You might be able to start slowly, even if you have never been active before. Sometimes five or ten minutes a day can be helpful. Your provider should tell you when and how to add to your level of activity as you get stronger. He or she might also refer you to a physical therapist or other rehabilitation professional for help with this process.