Fear of Treatment-Related Side Effects

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2018

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

As you prepare to start cancer treatment, it is normal to fear treatment-related side effects. But do not be afraid to talk with your health care team about possible side effects and how to manage them. Your health care team is focused on preventing and controlling side effects. Talking to them can ease your mind and prepare you for what lies ahead.

Common fears about side effects

Some of the most common fears include:

  • Loss of control and/or not knowing what to expect.

  • Discomfort, pain, nausea, or tiredness.

  • Not being able to do daily activities, such as going to work, completing household tasks, and attending social events.

  • Appearance changes, such as hair loss or scars.

  • Sexual problems or difficulty becoming pregnant after treatment.

  • Anxiety about a treatment or a procedure.

Coping with your fears

Remember that the long-term goal of treatment is to help you, not hurt you. Many cancer treatments used today are less intense and take less time than previous treatments. And many of the side effects you may experience are temporary and will go away several weeks to months after finishing your treatment.

You can often manage side effects with medication. And many side effects can be prevented before treatment starts. Talk with your health care team about how to manage the common side effects for each treatment.

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

  • Ask your doctor for a list of symptoms that may require immediate care. And find out how you can reach the doctor’s office after hours.

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

  • Learn how men and women can preserve fertility. And ask your doctor about seeing a fertility specialist before treatment begins.

  • 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.

Consider talking to others

Talk with your family and loved ones about your expectations and concerns. Their support can ease your fears about experiencing side effects from treatment. You might also talk with your employer about what you will be going through. Discuss adjusting your schedule while you during treatment. Learn more about going back to work after cancer.

It can also help to talk with others who have recently gone through the same treatments. But remember that another person’s experiences with side effects may be different from your own. You may also find support groups in your local community or online. Or you can ask a social worker about counseling or referrals to community support partners.

Related Resources

Managing Emotions

When to Call the Doctor During Cancer Treatment

Talking With Your Doctor About Negative Emotions During Cancer