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Do What You Can to Ease Side Effects of Treatment for Thymus Cancer

Here are some common side effects from treatment for thymus 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 samples of your blood for blood tests throughout your treatment. One thing he or she is checking is your red blood cell count. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. If your body does not have enough 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. This 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.

Constipation

This may be a side effect of chemotherapy or other medications that are part of your cancer treatment, such as pain medicines. Constipation may include difficult or infrequent bowel movements. It can range from mildly uncomfortable to painful. Taking pain medications often leads 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. Warm liquids, such as coffee and tea, may help.

  • Eat foods high in fiber, such as cereals, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

  • Exercise.

  • Take stool softeners or a laxative only as needed or as prescribed by your doctor.

Diarrhea

This may be a side effect of chemotherapy. Diarrhea, which includes loose or frequent bowel movements, or both, may lead to dehydration if you don't take these precautions. Many drugs can cause bowel changes:

  • 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 a "BRAT "diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast).

  • Drink more simple fluids, such as water and broth, to prevent dehydration.

  • Ask your doctor about medications that may help.

Hair loss (alopecia)

Losing your hair, called alopecia, can be upsetting because baldness is a visible reminder that you are being treated for thymus 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.

  • Be gentle with your hair. Use a mild shampoo and pat dry.

  • 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.

Infection

Your doctor will take samples of your blood for blood tests throughout your treatment. One thing he or she is checking is your white blood cell count. Many types of chemotherapy can cause low white blood cell counts, as can the cancer itself. A lowered white blood cell count 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 degrees or higher, severe chills, a cough, pain, a burning sensation during urination, or any sores or redness.

Menopausal symptoms

Some types of chemotherapy can damage a woman's ovaries. Or it may cause menopausal symptoms in women who've not yet reached menopause. These symptoms include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, and weight changes. Periods may become irregular or may stop, and you may not be able to get pregnant. For some women, the loss of a menstrual period is permanent:

  • You may still become pregnant while getting cancer treatment and it is not safe to do so. If needed, talk with your doctor about birth control before treatment begins.

  • Talk with your doctor about ways to manage menopausal symptoms, such as using lubricants for vaginal dryness, doing mild exercise, and talking with a therapist about mood swings or signs of depression.

  • Report any unusual bleeding to your doctor.

  • Continue with regular pelvic exams.

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.

  • 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. Choose foods that are soft, wet, bland, and easy to swallow.

  • 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.

  • Take over-the-counter pain medication, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), if necessary. Ask your doctor for stronger pain medicine if you need it.

  • Call your doctor or nurse if your temperature reaches 100.5 degrees or higher.

Nausea or vomiting

Nausea or vomiting as a result of chemotherapy or radiation treatment may range from barely noticeable to severe. It may help you to understand the different types of nausea:

  • Acute-onset nausea and vomiting. This occurs within a few minutes to several hours after chemotherapy. The worst episodes tend to be five to six hours after treatment, and the symptoms end within the first 24 hours.

  • Delayed-onset vomiting. This develops more than 24 hours after treatment.

  • Anticipatory nausea and vomiting. This 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 it did previously, which triggers the actual reflex.

  • Breakthrough vomiting. This occurs despite treatment to prevent it. It requires additional treatment.

  • Refractory vomiting. This occurs after one or more chemotherapy treatments. It means you're no longer responding to antinausea treatments.

Most nausea can be prevented. To prevent nausea, 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 another medicine may 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 decrease your nausea.

Skin dryness or irritation

This may be a side effect of radiation therapy:

  • Protect your skin from sun exposure by wearing sunscreen of at least 15 SPF.

  • 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, sunblock, cologne, cosmetics, or powder on your skin within two hours after treatment because they may cause irritation.

  • Wear loose, soft clothing over the treated area. Cotton underwear can help prevent further irritation.

  • 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's less dehydrating.

  • If you must shave the treated area, use only an electric shaver, because you are less likely to cut yourself with it. Don't use lotion before shaving. And don't use hair-removal products. Both can irritate your skin.

  • 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.

Tiredness

Tiredness is a very common side effect from chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It is also a symptom of anemia, or a low red blood cell count. Or it can be caused from a B12 vitamin or iron deficiency, which your doctor may find through a blood test. Whatever the cause, you may feel only slightly tired or you may suffer from extreme fatigue.

Fatigue can last four to six weeks after treatment ends. Taking these actions may help increase your energy level: 

  • Take action to 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 the tips under Anemia.

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