Fear of Treatment-Related Side Effects

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2015

Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: Coping With the Fear of Side Effects, adapted from this feature.

As you prepare to start cancer treatment, it is normal to fear treatment-related side effects. However, your health care team is focused on preventing and controlling your side effects. Don't be afraid to talk with your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about possible side effects and how you can manage them. This information can ease your mind and prepare you for what lies ahead.

Common fears

Some of the most common fears about side effects include:

  • Losing control and/or not knowing what to expect

  • Experiencing discomfort, pain, nausea, or tiredness

  • Losing the ability to do daily activities, such as going to work, completing household tasks, and attending social events

  • Undergoing appearance changes, such as hair loss or scars

  • Developing sexual problems or struggling to become pregnant or have children after treatment

  • Feeling anxious about a treatment or a procedure

Coping with your fears

The following suggestions can help you cope with the fear of treatment-related side effects:

  • Remember that the long-term goal of treatment is to help you, not hurt you.

  • Know that many cancer treatments used today are less intense and take less time than previous treatments.

  • You can often manage side effects with medication. And most side effects go away after treatment.

  • Ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about managing the common side effects for each treatment. Often, many side effects can be anticipated and/or prevented before treatment starts.

  • Ask your social worker for counseling or referrals to community support partners.

  • Ask how to reach the doctor’s office after hours and for a list of symptoms that may require immediate care.

  • Stay involved in your care and express your thoughts in the treatment decision-making process.

  • Learn how you can preserve fertility, and ask your doctor about seeing a fertility specialist before treatment begins.

  • Talk with your family and loved ones about your expectations and concerns. Their support can ease your fears about experiencing side effects from treatment.

  • Find others who have recently gone through the same treatments. You may find support groups in your local community or online. It can help to talk with others and know that you are not alone. But remember that each person’s experiences with side effects may be different from your own.

  • Talk with your employer about what you will be going through. Discuss adjusting your schedule while you undergo treatment. Learn more about going back to work after cancer.

  • Stay focused on the present. Dwelling on things that may or may not happen will only worsen negative feelings.

  • Keep a journal to record your feelings and your experiences.

  • Try relaxing techniques, such as deep breathing, music, yoga, and meditation. When you are less anxious, you can focus better and make more educated decisions.

  • Give yourself time to grieve physical losses and adjust to your new body.

More Information

Managing Emotions

Finding Support and Information

When to Call the Doctor During Cancer Treatment