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Published on December 12, 2017

woman going through chemotherapy comforted by daughter

Relief for Cancer Side Effects

Dealing with side effects of powerful treatments like chemotherapy is often a major aspect of having cancer. For some, side effects cause more symptoms than the cancer itself.

Out of concern for caring for the whole person, Avera Cancer Institute offers services to address side effects as well as treatment for cancer.

Preventing Hair Loss

“A vast majority of chemotherapy treatments result in temporary hair loss, and for some patients, this side effect can be particularly traumatic,” said Amy Krie, MD, breast cancer oncologist with Avera Medical Group. “A key reason for this is physical appearance. Hair loss sends that message to everyone that you have cancer.”

Avera’s wig program offers a free wig to any woman who will lose her hair during cancer treatment. But now there’s a new treatment that can minimize hair loss. It’s called the Dignicap® Scalp Cooling System, and Avera Cancer Institute was the first center within seven states across the Upper Midwest to offer it.

Beginning with getting their hair wet, patients wear caps that are tight around the scalp and also cool the scalp to around 37 degrees F. The cap is worn during chemo treatments and then for three hours afterward. Scalp cooling prevents circulation of the chemo drugs to the hair cells.

“At Avera, all of the patients who have tried scalp cooling to date have successfully kept over 50 percent of their hair by the end of chemotherapy treatments, and most kept 75 to 90 percent of their hair,” Krie said. “We’re excited to see that this treatment has been so effective. It’s great to be able to offer this option to patients who dread losing their hair.”

Sexual Side Effects

Two common cancers among women, breast and uterine, are estrogen dependent, and treatments decrease the body’s estrogen level to prevent a recurrence.

“Whether or not a woman is at the age of menopause, these treatments cause menopausal changes, including vaginal dryness and painful intercourse, as well as recurrent urinary tract or vaginal infections,” said Matthew Barker, MD, Avera Medical Group urogynecologist.

“Women have so much to go through, they usually don’t even talk about sexual side effects,” he said. Treatments such as hormonal therapy, physical therapy, lubrication and counseling can help.

“The exciting new thing is treatment with a fractional CO2 laser, which is similar to lasers for dermatology and hair removal,” Barker said. Treatment with this laser changes the lining of the vagina to create a premenopausal state of the skin for women to help with dryness. This treatment takes only a few minutes, with no anesthesia or recovery time.

“It’s very effective, especially for women who can’t tolerate estrogen,” Barker said. Three treatments are delivered six weeks apart, followed up by yearly maintenance treatments if needed.

Learn more about Avera’s Sexual Medicine Program.

Natural Therapies

Avera Medical Group Integrative Medicine offers non-drug services that help alleviate and even prevent many common side effects of cancer treatment, such as constipation or diarrhea, depression and anxiety, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, hot flashes, nausea, numbness or tingling (neuropathy), muscle aches or headaches, sinus congestion and more.

Acupuncture: Research has shown that 80 percent of cancer patients experience positive results when using acupuncture. This ancient healing practice uses sterilized, hair-thin needles gently placed at strategic places in the skin to stimulate the body's natural healing process.

“The nice thing about acupuncture is that it’s not another medicine or chemical to put into your body – it’s completely natural. It also has the potential to treat a number of symptoms all at once and many patients find their appointments relaxing,” says Dawn Flickema, MD, Avera Medical Group Integrative Medicine specialist.

Aromatherapy: Sally Williams, DO, Avera Medical Group Integrative Medicine specialist, said use of essential oils are especially popular for treating nausea, anxiety, sleep issues and even hot flashes.

“Essential oils are pleasant and convenient to use,” adds Flickema. “For example, if you’re experiencing nausea, you can pull it out of your pocket or purse and use it right away.”

For the safest and best use of aromatherapy, it’s important to only inhale – not ingest – essential oils. “Your most efficient uptake of essential oil is by smelling it. It’s absorbed more readily that way to stimulate the different parts of your brain,” says Flickema.

Mind Body Classes: Gentle movement techniques have been found to be helpful for treating neuropathy and improving balance. “It can also help reduce stress and pain and improve sleep,” Williams said.

Cancer patients may also benefit from:

  • Guidance on supplements
  • Health coaching and nutrition consultations
  • Massage therapy

Integrative therapies provide the relief many people need to continue with cancer treatments as scheduled, Flickema said. “We’ve found that it helps a lot of people be able to finish or avoid delays in their treatment, which is a great benefit.”


Nausea and loss of appetite is a common side effect of chemotherapy, although some patients are affected by symptoms like constipation or diarrhea.

“We want patients to maintain their weight during cancer treatment, and that means getting plenty of good healthy food,” said Nancy Miller, Registered Dietitian for Avera Cancer Institute in Mitchell. If needed, patients may benefit from incorporating more calories through smoothies or supplements.

Dietitians are available at all Avera Cancer Institute locations to consult with patients about their diet during cancer treatment.

Often it’s the smell – rather than the taste – of food that brings on nausea. “I tell patients to plan ahead and prepare meals in advance on days when they’re feeling good, or have someone else do the cooking.”

Cancer treatment is not the time to diet to lose weight. “If patients have a good appetite, we advise them to eat three meals a day with healthy snacks in between with plenty of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and protein. Keeping hydrated by drinking plenty of water is also important,” Miller said.

Live Better. Live Balanced. Avera.

Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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