Do What You Can to Ease Side Effects of Treatment for Anal Cancer
It’s likely that you will have physical concerns since your cancer may cause symptoms and your treatment may cause side effects. In this section, you’ll learn more about how to respond to some of the most common symptoms and side effects from treating anal cancer.
Here are some common side effects from treatment for anal cancer and how to ease them. You may not have all of these. We’ve listed them in alphabetical order so you can find help when you need it.
Anemia (low red blood cell levels)
Your doctor will take blood samples from you for blood tests throughout your treatment. One thing he or she is checking for is your red blood cell count. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. If your body does not have this oxygen, you may feel tired. Decreased red blood cell counts can be caused by small amounts of blood loss, by chemotherapy, radiation, or by the cancer itself.
If your doctor tells you that you have anemia, take these actions to feel better:
Take short rests when you’re tired. Avoid long naps during the day so that you can sleep well at night.
Add mild exercise, such as walking, to your daily routine. It may help you sleep better.
Balance activity with rest. Save your energy for important tasks.
Drink plenty of water. Dehydration adds to fatigue.
Talk with your doctor about medications or treatments that may help manage your anemia.
Anxiety and depression
Many people may feel blue, anxious, or distressed after being told they have cancer. These feelings may continue or come back throughout treatment.
Taking these actions may ease your mental stress:
Talk with your family or friends.
Consider joining a cancer support group or finding a cancer “buddy” who can help you cope.
Ask your doctor about medications for depression and anxiety.
Talk with a mental health professional if symptoms don't improve. You may also want to consider family therapy to help everyone manage the stress of a cancer diagnosis.
Constipation may include difficult or infrequent bowel movements. It can range from mildly uncomfortable to painful. This may be a side effect of chemotherapy. Taking some pain medications can also lead to constipation, so it’s wise to take these preventive actions. These same steps will give you relief if you are already constipated:
Drink plenty of fluids, especially water and prune juice.
Eat foods high in fiber, such as cereals, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Take stool softeners or a laxative only as prescribed by your doctor.
Diarrhea includes loose or frequent bowel movements, or both. It may lead to dehydration if you don’t take these precautions. Many drugs can cause bowel changes. This may be a side effect of chemotherapy:
Avoid milk and milk products.
Avoid gas-producing vegetables, dried fruit, fiber cereals, seeds, popcorn, nuts, corn, and dried beans.
Eat low-residue, low-fiber foods, such as those included in the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast).
Drink more fluids, such as water and broth, to prevent dehydration.
Ask your doctor about medications that may help.
Losing your hair (called alopecia) can be upsetting because baldness is a visible reminder that you are being treated for anal cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause hair loss. Keep in mind that your hair will probably grow back after treatment.
Try these coping tips:
Consider cutting your hair before treatment starts.
Think about getting a wig, hat, or scarf before your hair loss starts. That way, you can get a wig that matches your hair and you’ll be ready with head coverings, if you choose to use them.
Because your scalp may be more sensitive to temperature and sun, protect it with sunscreen and hats or scarves.
Your doctor will take blood samples from you for blood tests throughout your treatment. One thing he or she is checking for is your white blood cell count. Many types of chemotherapy can cause low white blood cell counts, as can the cancer itself. Lowered white cell counts is called neutropenia. Without enough white blood cells, your body may not be able to fight infection.
If your doctor tells you that your white blood cell count is low, take these actions to stay healthy:
Avoid crowds or people with colds.
Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer throughout the day to kill germs.
Call your doctor right away if you have any of these signs of infection: a temperature of 100.5°F (38.1°C) or higher, severe chills, a cough, pain, a burning sensation during urination, or any sores or redness.
Mouth sores (mucositis)
Some types of chemotherapy may cause mouth sores. These may hurt and make eating an unpleasant experience.
To prevent sores in your mouth, take these actions:
Brush your teeth after meals and before bedtime; floss every day.
Keep your mouth and lips clean and moist.
Use sugar-free candies or gums to increase moisture in your mouth.
To ease the pain if you get sores in your mouth, take these actions:
Avoid alcohol and mouthwashes containing alcohol because they may irritate the sores.
Avoid hot, rough, or spicy foods because they may irritate the sores.
Avoid tobacco because it may irritate the sores. Smoking can also make you more susceptible to sores.
Ask your doctor about topical mouth medications, or a special prescription mouthwash called "magic mouthwash."
Take over-the-counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen, if necessary.
Nausea or vomiting
Nausea or vomiting as a result of chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer may range from barely noticeable to severe. It may help you to understand the different types of nausea:
Acute-onset nausea and vomiting occurs within a few minutes to several hours after chemotherapy. The worst episodes tend to be 5 to 6 hours after treatment, and the symptoms end within the first 24 hours.
Delayed-onset vomiting develops more than 24 hours after treatment.
Anticipatory nausea and vomiting are learned from previous experiences with vomiting. As you prepare for the next dose of chemotherapy, you may anticipate that nausea and vomiting will occur as they did previously, which triggers the actual reflexes.
Breakthrough vomiting occurs despite treatment to prevent it. It requires additional treatment.
Refractory vomiting occurs after one or more chemotherapy treatments — essentially, you’re no longer responding to antinausea treatments.
To prevent nausea, most of which can be prevented, take these actions:
Ask your doctor about getting a prescription medicine to control nausea and vomiting. Then make sure you take it as directed. If you are vomiting and cannot take the medicine, call your doctor or nurse.
If you have bothersome nausea and vomiting even though you are taking your medicine, call your doctor or nurse. Your medicine can be changed, or medications can be added.
To help ease nausea or vomiting if you have it, try these tips:
Try eating foods and drinking beverages that were easy to take or made you feel better when you’ve had the flu or were nauseated from stress. These might be bland foods, sour candy, pickles, dry crackers, ginger ale, flat soda, or others.
Do not eat fatty or fried foods, very spicy foods, or very sweet foods.
Eat room-temperature or cold foods. The smells from hot foods may make your nausea worse.
Ask your doctor or nurse if he or she can help you learn a relaxation exercise. This may make you feel less anxious and more in control, and decrease your nausea.
Ask your doctor or nurse about using acupressure bands on your wrists, which may help to decrease your nausea.
Skin dryness and irritation
This may be a side effect of radiation therapy used by itself or in combination with chemotherapy:
Protect your skin from sun exposure by wearing sunscreen of at least 15 SPF (sun protection factor).
Ask your doctor or nurse what kind of lotion you can use to moisturize and soothe your skin. Don’t use any lotion, soap, deodorant, or powder on your skin within 2 hours after treatment because they may cause irritation.
Wear loose, soft clothing over the treated area. Cotton underwear can help prevent further irritation.
Use a donut shaped pillow when sitting.
Don’t scratch, rub, or scrub treated skin. After washing, gently blot dry.
Don’t bandage skin with tape. If you must bandage it, use paper tape, and ask your nurse to help you place the dressings so that you can avoid irritation.
Don’t apply heat or cold to the treated area. Bathe only with lukewarm water because it is less dehydrating.
Keep your nails well trimmed and clean, so you don’t accidentally scratch yourself.
Thinking and remembering problems
You may have mild problems with concentration and memory during and after chemotherapy. Being tired can make this worse.
Taking these actions may help:
Make lists and write down important information.
Use other tools to help organize your life, such as calendars, pill dispensers, or alarm clocks.
If you have trouble remembering names, directions, or task sequences, tell your health care provider, and ask what you can do to help improve your cognitive health. This may be especially important to address after your treatment ends.
Tiredness or fatigue
Tiredness is a very common symptom and side effect from chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It is also a symptom of anemia, which is a low red blood cell count as noted from blood tests. Or it can be caused from a B12 vitamin or iron deficiency, which your doctor may also find in a blood test. Whatever the cause, you may feel only slightly tired or you may suffer from extreme fatigue.
Fatigue can last 4 to 6 weeks after treatment ends. Taking these actions may help increase your energy level:
Treat a poor appetite, because eating improperly can make you tired.
If your fatigue is severe or chronic, ask for help with routine tasks that can drain your energy, such as grocery shopping or housework. Some people reduce their hours at work.
Follow tips under “Anemia.”