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Cancer Symptoms & Treatment


Receiving a diagnosis of cancer presents numerous challenges: learning about your disease, selecting the physicians who will care for you, and making decisions about your treatment. Then come the day-today challenges: integrating the treatment schedule into your life, coping with the symptoms and side effects of the treatments, and finally making the transition to being a cancer survivor.

We hope our texts will provide information and support to help you in meeting these challenges. We have included information about cancer and cancer treatment, but the focus is on managing the symptoms of the disease and the side effects of treatment. Equally important is information we hope will help you and your family cope with the emotional and practical concerns that come up during this time.


(16) Cancer Symptoms & Treatment

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Cancerous cells are also called malignant cells.

What are cancer symptoms and signs?



What are shingles? Is there is a vaccine for shingles, and should I get it?

Shingles (herpes zoster) is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. You can get shingles only if you have had chicken pox in the past, and about 1 in 10 people who have had chicken pox will get shingles.

This infection is more common if you are 60 years of age or older and are getting treatment for cancer. Once you have had chicken pox, the virus stays in your body and hibernates, remaining inactive, in the nerve cells along your spine. If the virus becomes active, it travels along a nerve tract on one side of your body.

This can cause tingling, a burning type of pain, itching, and a blister-like rash that follows a line or band on the skin over the involved nerve. Very often, the pain and itching start 1 to 4 days before you can see the rash. If you develop a rash (not everyone does), the blisters are small and tear-shaped. Shingles can occur anywhere on the body but occur most often on the chest or back.

Shingles itself is not contagious (catching). However, if you have shingles, you can give chicken pox to someone who has not had chicken pox before. Your blisters will crust over and dry up in about 7 to 10 days. Once this happens, you are no longer contagious.

Sometimes people continue to have pain even when the rash goes away. This is called postherpetic neuralgia, which is localised pain in the area where shingles were present.

If you think that you have shingles, call your doctor or nurse. Your doctor will prescribe an antiviral medicine (e.g., acyclovir, famciclovir). This medicine can be taken as a pill, given through a vein (intravenously), or applied as a cream (topically) on the blisters. You will need to take this medicine several times a day for 7 to 10 days, and you must take it just as the doctor tells you to.

If you develop postherpetic neuralgia, your doctor will prescribe pain medicine. This may be taken as a pill, or sometimes a cream is rubbed into the skin where the rash was located. If this medicine doesn’t help your pain, follow up with your doctor.

Call your doctor if you:

• Think you have shingles

• Have shingles near your eye

• Have a rash with a fever of 100.5ºF or more

A vaccine, called Zostavax, can now prevent shingles.

The vaccine is recommended for people aged 60 or older because shingles are more common in this age group. Even if you have had shingles before, you can get the vaccine to prevent future outbreaks.Talk to your doctor to see if you should get the shingles vaccine.


 Postherpetic – neuralgia - Localised pain that occurs in the area where shingles were present.

I feel short of breath. What can I do to ease my breathing?

When people feel short of breath, they describe themselves as having difficulty breathing or being unable to get enough air. Some people say they feel “winded.” Dyspnea is the medical term for shortness of breath. In people with cancer, shortness of breath can be caused by cancer, by treatment for the disease, or by something unrelated to cancer. Here are some causes of shortness of breath:

• Lung damage from cancer, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or lung surgery

• A blood clot in the lung, which usually starts when a blood clot travels from a vein in the legs to the pulmonary artery, causing sudden shortness of breath (pulmonary embolism)

• Fluid buildup around the heart or lungs (called pericardial or pleural effusion)

• Lung infection

• Heart failure (called congestive heart failure)

• Asthma and emphysema (also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD)

• Anemia

• Stress or anxiety

The best way to relieve shortness of breath is to treat its cause. Even if the condition is not treatable or the cause is unknown, measures can be taken to help you breathe better. If you have shortness of breath, talk to your doctor or nurse, who will work with you to determine the best way to improve your breathing.

Your doctor may prescribe medicine to treat your shortness of breath: inhalers for asthma or emphysema, antibiotics for infection, epoetin for anaemia, or blood thinners for a blood clot. If it is determined that your shortness of breath is caused by stress or anxiety, an antianxiety medicine such as lorazepam may be prescribed. Other medicines that are sometimes used are corticosteroids and the pain medicine morphine.

Morphine helps people breathe better by slowing the breathing rate and thereby allowing people to take deeper, more effective breaths. If the doctor prescribes medicine for your shortness of breath, do not stop taking it without approval.

Other nondrug measures can help people with shortness of breath. If you have low oxygen in your blood, your doctor will prescribe oxygen.

Some breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing, altering breathing rhythm, and pursed lip breathing, can help people decrease shortness of breath. These breathing exercises also help you to take slower, more effective breaths. Ask your nurse to provide you with instructions for breathing exercises. If you have shortness of breath, you may be more comfortable sitting up and using pillows for support. Reclining chairs are helpful for sleeping and allow you to be in a semi-sitting position. Schedule rest periods at regular intervals during activities to relieve shortness of breath. Sometimes an open window or a fan in the room is helpful.

Call your doctor or nurse if you have any of the following:

• Sudden difficulty breathing or inability to catch your breath

• Worsening shortness of breath despite your treatments

• Discomfort or pain in the chest when breathing

• Bloody or discoloured phlegm (sputum)

• Difficulty sleeping when lying down

• Fever of 100.5ºF or more

Mary Ann’s comment:

I get a little panicked when my breathing gets difficult. I am lucky that it only happens on humid days or days with high pollen counts. I never had asthma or any breathing issues until my lung cancer manifested. What helps me is my twice-a-day inhaler (Advair) and an emergency inhaler (Proventil), which I try not to use unless I really, really need it. I have also gained a great deal of weight, which is not helping my breathing as I am lugging 100 pounds extra around every time I move. My appetite is low; so I suspect that the medications I am on may be helping me hold onto this excess weight (along with no exercise). However, I’d rather take my medication and be here to complain about those days I am uncomfortable! Air conditioning has been my source of relief during the pollen-filled humid days.


Dyspnea - Difficult or laboured breathing; shortness of breath.

Pulmonary embolism - A blood clots in the lung; usually starts when a blood clot travels from a vein in the legs to the pulmonary artery, causing sudden shortness of breath

How do I know if I need oxygen?

Oxygen is essential for cells to function normally in the body. Not all shortness of breath is caused by low oxygen. To test for low oxygen, a small device called a pulse oximeter is placed on your finger. If it shows that you have a low oxygen level, your doctor will prescribe oxygen and determine how much of it (referred to as litres of oxygen) you need.

Oxygen can be provided for you at home by a respiratory or home care company. Your health insurance provider may cover the cost of it.

Oxygen comes in different types of containers. There are cylinders that contain oxygen. Alternatively, a small machine that pulls oxygen from the room air can be set up at home and plugged into an electrical outlet. The oxygen travels through a tube that extends from the unit and that is attached to another tube (called a nasal cannula), placed in your nostrils. Also available are small portable units that are relatively easy to use outside the house. Take great care when oxygen is in the home. Oxygen itself is nonflammable, but materials will burn more readily in the presence of increased oxygen. When oxygen is not in use, the container should be turned off. Under no circumstances should matches, lighters, cigarettes, or candles be used in the room where oxygen is used or stored. Additionally, oxygen containers should not be stored near gas or electrical heating elements.

Your respiratory therapist or the company that provides the oxygen will review other safety measures with you and with your family or caregivers.

Take great care when oxygen is in the home



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