Tips for Feeling Your Best During Immunotherapy

How to recognize the common side effects of immunotherapy and feel better during cancer treatment.

An IV infusion for cancer treatment. Cancer treatments, including immunotherapy, may be given with an infusion.

The immune system is your body’s defenses against infections and disease, including cancer. It includes a number of cells, systems and organs. These include white blood cells, bone marrow, the lymphatic system (including the lymph fluid, vessels, ducts, and nodes), as well as the adenoids, spleen, tonsils, and thymus.

Immunotherapy is a category of cancer treatment that helps these defenses fight cancer. Like other cancer therapies, immunotherapy can cause side effects. These can include reactions at the site of injection, such as pain, itchiness, swelling, redness, and a rash.

Immunotherapy can also cause systemic side effects, which impact the whole body, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Rash or itchy skin
  • Diarrhea or severe stomach pain
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Vastly increased thirst, appetite, or urination
  • Shortness of breath or coughing

Most side effects are treatable. Addressing side effects promptly is important. Always inform your healthcare provider about any symptoms you develop during treatment.

In addition to dealing with side effects, the strategies below can help you feel your best during immunotherapy.

Eat well

A healthy diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and appropriate servings of lean proteins. But it can be hard to eat well during immunotherapy. Common side effects like diarrhea, dry or sore mouth, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue can weaken your appetite or make it hard to keep food down.

Fortunately, many cancer care teams include a registered dietitian. A dietician can help you set nutritional goals and recommend foods that may be easier to eat during treatment. They can also recommend nutritional supplements that can help you meet your caloric and nutritional needs—which may be greater than normal while undergoing treatment.

Avoid infection

Cancer treatments like immunotherapy can increase your risk of infection and illness. Some of the ways you can avoid infections and illness during immunotherapy include:

  • Washing your hands thoroughly and frequently.
  • Using an alcohol-based sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available.
  • Cleaning surfaces you’ll touch with disinfectant.
  • Avoiding large crowds and people who are sick.
  • Getting a flu shot.
  • Telling your healthcare provider about any pain, swelling, redness, irritation, bleeding, or tenderness you experience.

Your healthcare provider may also prescribe other precautions based on your specific situation.

Reduce stress

Many cancer patients experience feelings of depression, anxiety and/or stress. To maintain or improve your mental and emotional health, it’s important to make time for the healthy activities you enjoy. These might include exercise (especially mind-body programs like yoga), meditation, crafts, seeing friends, spending time in nature, and/or speaking with a counselor or therapist.

Monitor symptoms

Keeping daily notes on how you feel—whether it’s fatigued, nauseated, or if you’re feeling good—can alert you to new or changing health concerns. Tracking your symptoms will also keep your healthcare providers informed and prepared to address your needs, which may change over time.

Stay active

Not only does exercise help boost strength, endurance, and mobility, it can also help your body fight cancer and the side effects of cancer treatment. Exercise may help lessen pain and tiredness. It may also help boost your immune system, sleep, and mental and emotional health. Speak to your healthcare providers about adapting your current exercise schedule or how to safely begin an exercise program during treatment.

Article sources open article sources

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Cleveland Clinic. "Lymphatic System."
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ESMO Patient Guide Series. "Immunotherapy Side Effects."
National Cancer Institute. "Eating Hints: Before, during, and after Cancer Treatment."
National Cancer Institute. "Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ)–Patient Version."
National Cancer Institute. "Infection and Neutropenia during Cancer Treatment."
Rebecca Hepp. "Researching Flu Vaccine Safety for Immunotherapy Patients." Oncology Time, 2019. Vol. 41, No. 11.
American Cancer Society. "Watching for and Preventing Infections."
Novin Nikbakhsh, Sussan Moudi, Setareh Abbasian and Soraya Khafri. "Prevalence of depression and anxiety among cancer patients." Caspian Journal of Internal Medicine, 2014. Vol. 5, No. 3.
Duck-Hee Kang, Na-Jin Park, and Traci McArdle. "Cancer-Specific Stress and Mood Disturbance: Implications for Symptom Perception, Quality of Life, and Immune Response in Women Shortly after Diagnosis of Breast Cancer." ISRN Nursing, 2012.
Brittany Ciupka. "10 Ways to Manage Stress to Reduce the Spread of Cancer." National Foundation for Cancer Research. September 18, 2019.
American Cancer Society. "Tools to Monitor Treatment."
Cancer.Net. "Exercise During Cancer Treatment."

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