Michelle Johnston-Fleece Photo by Anthony DiPietro

Medical care has come a long way in alleviating the side effects of cancer treatment, but there is still a range of common ones, from anemia, fevers and weakened immune function to fatigue, pain and depression. As a caregiver, you can help your loved one manage these difficult conditions and others. The key: Take steps in advance to prepare, and don’t be afraid to intervene when necessary.

Consider Side Effects When Choosing Treatment

If you are helping the patient wrestle with treatment choices or accompanying the patient to the doctor, make sure the oncologist explains the anticipated side effects of any options and how they may affect quality of life. If you think the side effects of a particular treatment could hinder the patient’s ability to stick with the regimen or that he or she won’t tolerate them, share your concern—and ask about the effectiveness and side effects of other treatments, if available.

Ask for a Palliative Care Consult

Many people—even some physicians—mistakenly think that palliative care is only for people who are near death. In fact, palliative care teams can help improve quality of life throughout the course of a disease. These health care practitioners can help with pain, side effects of treatment, and psychosocial and spiritual issues, so it is important to involve them in the patient’s care as early as possible.

Know When to Report a Side Effect

It is crucial for caregivers to look out for both expected and unexpected side effects, because a patient may be hesitant to report them out of fear of going to the hospital or risking being taken off of a treatment regimen. Ask the patient’s care team about potential side effects and which should be addressed immediately. Also ask how and when you should report different types of side effects (for example, by going to an emergency room or calling the office).

By having this conversation, you can help identify and manage many side effects before they become severe. If severe symptoms appear suddenly or unexpectedly, it is best to contact the patient’s oncologist immediately. Quick action on your part can help the health care team address side effects before they threaten the patient’s health or ability to stay on the treatment.

Be an Advocate for the Patient

At the start of treatment, make it clear to the health care team that you and the patient want adequate and responsive management of side effects. If side effects do become a problem during treatment, speak up!

Also be sure to find out what you can do to manage side effects: If the patient is in pain, for instance, you may be able to assist with medication, ice packs, massage or breathing exercises. To lessen the chance of nausea, you might change the timing of meals. Always ask the health care team for guidance.

Be Understanding

It is hard to see someone you care about suffering, and some of the common side effects of cancer and its treatment can have a direct impact on the caregiver, too. Caring for someone with sexual issues, fatigue, distress, anxiety or depression, in particular, can affect a loved one’s relationship with that person in very deep ways. Although at times these side effects can leave you exasperated or exhausted, try to be understanding. And when you need a break, take one. It will help you restore your energy, patience and ability to adequately care for yourself and your loved one. 

Michelle Johnston-Fleece was the primary caregiver for her husband, Matthew Fleece, who died in 2004. Now a patient advocate, she is the director of state initiatives for the Cancer Support Community’s Cancer Policy Institute.