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Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.

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Side Effects

Side effects are health problems resulting from cancer treatments. Local treatments such as radiation therapy tend to affect the area of the body treated. Medicines that travel throughout the body, such as chemotherapy, have side effects that are more widespread. Doctors plan treatments to limit side effects as much as possible while still effectively treating cancer.

Pediatric cancer patient hugging mom

Side effects are hard to predict. Some patients may have mild side effects, while other patients may have more severe problems. The same patient can have different side effects from one course of treatment to another.

Most side effects of cancer treatment get better after therapy ends. But living with side effects can be hard, both physically and emotionally. The medical team can help patients prepare for side effects and manage them if they occur.

Other Common Side Effects of Childhood Cancer Treatments

Certain side effects are more common. Coping with these problems is often a process, and families have to figure out what works best for them. However, there are strategies that can help.

Loss of Appetite

Many children lose their appetites during cancer treatment. Some medicines may also change the way food tastes or smells. Good nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight is critical to fighting cancer.

To manage nutrition:

  • Choose healthy foods when possible.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals and snacks.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Test different foods or meal/snack schedules to see what works best.
  • Keep a journal to track appetite, foods, and physical activity.

Coping with Side Effects

Dealing with side effects can be very difficult. Patients and families often feel overwhelmed physically and emotionally. Some side effects can be hard to discuss. It is normal to feel frustrated, sad, angry, embarrassed or self-conscious. But, because every treatment and experience is different, it is important to let the care teams know about symptoms.

Medicines are available to address many issues such as pain, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea. Many patients benefit from consultation with palliative care or pain specialists who work with the primary medical team to manage side effects and provide comfort.

Patients and parents also figure out things that make symptoms better and worse and ways to help them get through the day. As much as possible, try to:

  • Eat healthy foods
  • Do some physical activity
  • Maintain a good sleep routine

Parents and older children may consider keeping a record of side effects. A journal or mobile app can be used to keep track of:

  • Symptoms and their severity
  • When they occur
  • What seems to help?

In addition to medications, many patients find help by using coping strategies such as:

  • Relaxation
  • Deep breathing
  • Massage
  • Biofeedback
  • Play therapy
  • Music and art therapy

Talking to other children and families can provide additional ideas and support for managing side effects. It can help to know that others are going through—or have gotten through—the same thing. Although it may take some problem solving and planning, it is possible to have better control over side effects.

Reviewed: February 2023