Managing symptoms and side effects

The person you are looking after may have symptoms and side effects. This may be due to cancer treatment or because the cancer is advanced. There are lots of ways you can help manage these.

They may have trouble eating. This can be because they have a sore or dry mouth, have constipation, feel sick or are being sick. It may help to ask the person’s GP or district nurse for advice. There are things you can do to help, such as cooking foods they find easier to eat or making small meals they can more easily manage.

The person you are looking after may have some pain and be breathless. There are medicines that can help and things you can do too, such as helping them find a comfortable sitting or lying position.

They may also have difficulty sleeping. You could ask the district nurse about a pressure-relieving mattress. You could help by making sure their room is at a comfortable temperature.

There are health and social care professionals here to support you. Let them know if any side effects and symptoms don’t improve.

Sore or dry mouth

A sore or dry mouth is a common side effect of cancer treatment or advanced cancer. Mouth ulcers and thrush are common. Tell the GP, specialist palliative care team or district nurse if the mouth of the person you are caring for becomes very sore or has white patches. It is very important these symptoms are treated. There are mouthwashes, tablets, gels or pellets that can help relieve the symptoms.

There are things you can do to help:

  • Encourage them to gently clean their teeth or dentures using a soft-bristled or children’s toothbrush.
  • Suggest they avoid things that are likely to cause discomfort, such as strongly flavoured toothpaste, acidic drinks like orange juice, and spicy or salty foods.
  • Try cooking moist food, as it is often easier to eat.
  • If they cannot manage solid food, try giving them soft foods such as porridge, bananas, custard, soup, yoghurt or rice pudding. You could try liquidised food, or a nourishing drink such as a smoothie.
  • Keep their lips moist by using Vaseline® or a lip balm.
  • Encourage them to drink plenty of fluids, and to avoid alcohol and smoking.
  • If they need dental treatment, ask the dentist if they can do a home visit. They may charge for this.


Constipation can be caused by cancer treatments and medicines, such as painkillers and anti-sickness drugs. Not eating enough fibre (roughage) or not drinking enough fluids can also make someone constipated. If the person you are caring for cannot move around much and is less active than usual, they are also more likely to become constipated.

Everyone’s bowel habits are different. But you should tell the GP, district nurse or palliative care nurse if the person you are caring for has a change in their usual bowel habit. They can give you advice about things that can help, such as changes to their diet. They may also prescribe medicines, such as laxatives. A laxative is a medicine that helps people to open their bowel.

There are things you can do to help:

  • If they are managing to eat, add more fruit and high-fibre foods to their diet, such as apricots, prunes, or prune juice.
  • Encourage them to drink plenty of fluids.
  • If they can move around a little, suggest doing some gentle exercise together, such as walking.

A poor appetite and eating difficulties

Some people with symptoms or side effects of treatment can have difficulty eating. Problems like a sore mouth, diarrhoea, constipation, tiredness or feeling sick can affect how well they eat. They may also find chewing or swallowing difficult. Cancer can also change the way the body uses food, so they may lose weight even if they are eating normally.

If the person you are looking after is having trouble eating, it may help to ask the health and social care professionals in charge of their care for advice. You can ask the GP or district nurse, or ask to speak to a dietitian. Dietitians give specialist advice to people who have eating problems or who struggle to maintain a healthy weight. They may give you a supply of supplements or nutritional drinks.

Nausea and vomiting

Some people with advanced cancer feel sick (nausea) or are sick (vomit). This may be due to the cancer or it may be a side effect of medicines or treatment. It’s important to let the doctor or nurse know if the person feels sick. There are anti-sickness medicines that may help. Some other tips to help relieve nausea and vomiting are:

  • avoid fatty and fried foods
  • eat cold foods as the smell from cooking and hot food can often increase feelings of nausea
  • eat small meals and snacks, and drink small amounts of fizzy drinks, such as ginger beer
  • suck peppermint sweets.


People with cancer are often worried that they are going to be in pain. Not everyone with cancer will have pain, even if the cancer is advanced. If the person you are caring for is in pain, it can usually be well-controlled with painkillers. Sometimes, the pain may be more difficult to control. So a combination of different medicines or other treatments may be needed.

The hospital doctor or GP can prescribe painkillers. They are usually taken by mouth as tablets. Some types of painkiller can be given as a patch stuck onto the skin (like a nicotine or hormone replacement patch).

If the person you are caring for is very drowsy or is being sick, they can have painkillers as an injection. Many painkillers can be given by injection, either into a muscle or often just under the skin.

If painkillers don’t seem to be working, contact the person’s GP, district nurse or specialist palliative care nurse. The dose or medicine may need to be changed.

Some painkillers can make people feel drowsy or light-headed at first, but this usually wears off after a day or so. If it doesn’t, tell their GP, district nurse or specialist palliative care nurse. They may be able to change to a painkiller that suits them better.

You may be able to help with their pain and discomfort by:

  • changing their position regularly
  • giving them a heat pad, a hot water bottle, or wheat bags that you can warm in a microwave
  • giving them ice packs
  • massaging the area that is painful
  • distracting them with TV, books or music.

Sometimes just listening to their fears and worries can help them cope better with pain.

If pain or other symptoms are very severe and distressing, a short stay in a hospice may help. The doctors and nurses there will be able to assess the pain and symptoms. They can change the dose of medicines or give new ones. This may help to control symptoms more quickly than if they were at home. Once their symptoms are controlled, they will be able to go home again.

Some types of pain can be controlled with more specialised ways, such as a nerve block. If the hospice doctor thinks this will help, the person you are caring for can be referred to a specialist in pain control.

Managing pain during advanced cancer

Oncologist Sarah Slater explains how painkillers help people with advanced cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Managing pain during advanced cancer

Oncologist Sarah Slater explains how painkillers help people with advanced cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Sleep problems

Your relative or friend may have problems sleeping at night. If they are in pain, it can be very difficult to sleep well and their pain control may need to be adjusted slightly.

They may be sleeping a lot during the day. If they are drowsy during the day and can’t sleep at night, ask their GP to check their medication. The GP may change their medicines to help them sleep better.

The person you care for may be anxious and find it difficult to relax. Reading, listening to music, meditating, or having a warm, milky drink or herbal tea in the late evening may help them to relax and fall asleep. Anything containing caffeine, such as coffee, tea and cola drinks should be avoided. The GP can prescribe sleeping tablets, if necessary.

Make sure that their mattress and pillows are comfortable, especially if they are spending a lot of time in bed. Ask the district nurse or occupational therapist if the person you are caring for needs a pressure-relieving mattress. You may be eligible for a Macmillan grant to help with the cost of buying a new mattress and pillows.

Here are some other ideas to help improve your relative or friend’s sleep:

  • make sure that the room is at the right temperature - cool with fresh air, but not too cold
  • have blankets available if needed
  • make sure there isn’t too much light – you could consider replacing the curtains for darker ones or putting up a blind behind the curtains to shut out more light
  • try to minimise noise distractions, such as a ticking clock
  • soft music might be soothing.

We have more information about coping with difficulty sleeping.

Back to Looking after someone with advanced cancer

Support from voluntary organisations

Charities and voluntary organisations may be able to offer information, support groups, financial help, holiday schemes, transport or counselling.

Support from family and friends

Family and friends may be able to help you with practical and emotional support while you care for someone with advanced cancer.

Other care options

You might need to take some time off from caring. There are different care options available to help you do this.