Managing the Fear of Side Effects Caused by Cancer Treatment

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2021

It is normal to be afraid of side effects when you start cancer treatment. You may have heard stories from family and friends who have had cancer about their experiences. You may have also seen movies or read about how difficult treatment can be. But it's important to remember that cancer treatment is different for everyone and there are many factors involved. And, your health care team now has more ways to prevent and relieve side effects than ever before.

Common worries include:

  • Not knowing what to expect or a general feeling of uncertainty

  • Specific physical side effects, such as pain, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue

  • Not being able to do regular activities, like taking care of your family, working, going to school, or exercising

  • Concerns about your care becoming a burden to your family or other types of guilt

  • Changes in how you look, like losing your hair

  • Sexual problems or fertility problems

  • Concerns about a specific treatment or procedure

Do not be afraid to talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of the cancer and cancer treatment you will receive. Your team can help you make a plan to manage your side effects. Talking about side effects, knowing what to expect, and having a plan can help you get ready for treatment.

How can I cope with my fears of side effects?

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 in the past. And many side effects last only a short time in general. They often go away several weeks or months after you finish treatment. Knowing what to expect can help you make a plan and regain a sense of control.

You should also know that doctors can prevent many side effects before treatment starts. Helping patients feel better during treatment is a major focus of cancer care today. There are many new options available today that were not available even a few years ago to prevent and treat side effects. For example, there are more medications to prevent nausea and vomiting. Talk with your health care team about the common side effects of your treatment and how they might be prevented.

Here are some tips for coping with the fear of side effects.

  • Take an active role in your treatment planning, also called shared decision making. These conversations with your doctor should include possible side effects of different treatment approaches.

  • Ask when to expect which side effects during and after your treatment period so you know what to watch for and won't be surprised if they occur.

  • Ask a member of your cancer care team for a list of possible symptoms that may require immediate medical care. And, ask how to contact your health care provider if an emergency occurs when their office is not open.

  • Write down all of your questions and concerns, no matter how big or small, including ones that you may have heard from a friend or family member. And, write down the doctor's answers or ask a loved one to come with you to appointments to help with this.

  • Communicate often. Let your doctor, nurse, and other providers know what you're thinking and experiencing so they can help.

  • If you are worried about your ability to have a child (fertility) after cancer, ask your health care provider about seeing a fertility specialist before you start cancer treatment. Learn more about fertility preservation for men and women.

  • Keep a journal of your feelings and experiences.

  • Try some specific ways to relax, such as deep breathing, music, yoga, and meditation. These can help you feel less anxious, focus better, and make clearer decisions.

  • Give yourself time to adjust to any changes in the way you look. Let yourself feel sad about the changes, and ask your health care team for ways to cope.

Talking about your fear of cancer side effects

In addition to talking with your cancer care team, it can be helpful to communicate with others too. Talk with your family and loved ones about your fear of side effects and other worries. Their support can make you feel less anxious and your loved ones can better understand your feelings. Be sure to share information provided by your health care team about what to expect. Together, you can think through possible caregiving needs and solutions or other plans.

You might want to talk with your supervisor or human resources person at your workplace about your treatment and possible side effects. This conversation may cover how you can adjust your schedule during treatment if you need to. Learn more about going back to work.

Ask your cancer care team about meeting with a social worker who can help you navigate these types of conversations. It can also help to talk to someone who has been through the same type of treatment you will go through. But remember that their experiences with side effects might be different from yours. Find out more about support groups in your community or online.

And, help from a professional counselor can also help ease your anxiety about side effects. Counselors provide a safe place for people with cancer to talk about their concerns and can help you cope with your fears.

Questions to ask the health care team

  • What symptoms can I expect from this specific type and stage of cancer?

  • What side effects are common from each treatment in my cancer treatment plan?

  • When is it likely that side effects will occur? How long will they last?

  • Is there anything I can do to prepare for these side effects?

  • What can the health care team do to prevent or relieve side effects?

  • Who should I tell if I begin experiencing side effects from treatment? How soon?

  • What side effects or symptoms are considered emergencies?

  • Who do I contact if I have questions about a side effect? Who can I contact after hours when the clinic is closed?

  • Are there any support groups you can recommend to help cope with the fear of side effects?

  • Are there other ways I can cope with my fears about the effects of treatment?

  • Can you recommend a social worker, counselor, or supportive or palliative care specialist for me to talk with?

Related Resources


Managing Stress

Prehabilitation Helps Patients Prepare for Treatment

Telephone and E-mail Cancer Helplines

Working When You Have Cancer: An Expert Q & A