Jul 19, 2022 9:00 AM

Read time: 3 minutes


Close up of hands holding two round, white pills in one hand and glass of water in the other

When people hear the word “steroids”, they may think of “roid rage” or athletes using them to enhance their performance. But steroids are actually natural hormones that have multiple functions. Steroids created in a lab, called corticosteroids, are often prescribed during cancer treatment.

Why are steroids prescribed during cancer treatment?

Steroids are used for several different reasons during treatment. They are prescribed to reduce swelling and fatigue, improve appetite, and more.

You may be prescribed steroids at the beginning of treatment, before & after surgery or radiation, or during chemotherapy.

There are many types of steroids. Some common names are dexamethasone, prednisone, methylprednisolone, and hydrocortisone.

What are the side effects and how can you deal with them?

Steroids may have side effects based on how long you take them. Your doctor will prescribe steroids for the shortest time possible to help with symptoms.

This table shows the most common short-term (one month or less) and long-term (more than one month) side effects.

Common Short-Term Side Effects

  • Hunger: Continue to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • Trouble Sleeping: If you take a steroid once a day, take it in the morning. If you take a steroid twice a day, take one in the morning and then one in the afternoon, no later than 5 p.m.
  • Heartburn: Take with a snack or food. Your doctor can also prescribe a drug to help prevent heartburn.
  • Hiccups: Your doctor may decrease your dose or prescribe a drug to relax the muscle that causes hiccups.
  • High blood pressure: Your care team will check your blood pressure during each visit. If you already have high blood pressure, your doctor may need to change the dose or type of drugs you take to control it.
  • Changes in mood: Steroids can make you feel restless or moody. Being active or going for a walk can help. Let your doctor know if mood changes seem to be too much.

Common Long-Term Side Effects

  • Infection: Steroids can weaken your immune system, which increases risk of infections. Your doctor may recommend a flu shot every year. You may also be prescribed a drug to help prevent a lung infection.
  • Osteoporosis (weak bones): Your doctor may recommend you take a daily, over-the-counter, calcium and vitamin D supplement.
  • Changes in vision: You should make an annual appointment with your eye doctor.
  • Muscle weakness: Major muscle weakness can happen so stay active. Exercising 30 minutes each day can help keep your muscles and bones strong.
  • Round “moon face”: Your face may develop a moon-like shape due to extra fat buildup. Tell your doctor if this bothers you.
  • Swelling in legs or feet: Your doctor may recommend wearing compression stockings. Tell your doctor if the swelling bothers you.

When should you contact your medical team?

It is important you take steroids exactly as they are prescribed. Do not stop taking them without discussing with your health care team. Your provider will discuss the side effects and help you manage them. Contact your medical team if your side effects are severe or getting worse.

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Cancer touches all of us.

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