Learning to Use Distraction to Manage Side Effects

Learning to Use Distraction to Manage Side Effects

Learn the principles behind distraction, plus 20 ways you can use distraction to ease pain and other side effects from cancer treatment.

The National Cancer Institute defines distraction as “a pain relief method that takes the patient's attention away from the pain.” You may have experienced this technique firsthand as a child if the doctor gave you a sucker just before or after vaccination shots. 

For cancer survivors, the idea is simple. If you aren’t focused on the side effects of treatment, they’ll be less noticeable. Some of these side effects, such as fatigue and stress, can be hard to treat. That’s why complimentary therapies like distraction are needed to minimize the impact side effects have on your daily life. 

Numerous studies have proven that distraction works. Anxiety, nausea and pain can all be better managed through distraction alone. 

20 Ways to Minimize Side Effects With Distraction 

The best thing about distraction, beyond its effectiveness, is that anyone can use it anywhere at any time. You just have to find a few things that can distract you whenever side effects flare up. To get you started, we’ve created this list of 20 easy ways you can use distraction to take your mind off of unpleasant side effects.

  1. Take an art class. Art therapy has long been used as a distraction technique that is calming and gives patients a creative outlet.
  2. Read whatever you like. Reading is an extremely effective stress reliever, because it distracts you from the current situation. Studies have shown that it doesn’t matter what you read. Just pick up whatever reading material you like best.
  3. Grab a tablet. Electronic devices certainly distract kids, and they are a welcome distraction for cancer survivors, too. That’s why the University of Michigan Cancer Center began handing out devices to patients during chemotherapy treatments. Download a few games and try to beat your best score.
  4. Cheer on your favorite sports team. A recent article on the website ILovetoWatchYouPlay.com, described how watching his high school basketball team became a welcome distraction for Bryce Newman. Bryce was an athlete himself before he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2015. The game gave him a few stress-free hours to cheer on his classmates. He even painted a basketball on his head to distract himself from being self-conscious about his hair loss.
  5. Use guided imagery. The technique known as guided imagery has been shown to relieve stress and anxiety in patients undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer. By vividly envisioning scenes in your mind, you can completely distract yourself from the outside world and increase positive feelings.
  6. Go to the movies. This distraction technique is recommended by Smoke Free Women to help smokers who are trying to quit, but it’s just as effective for cancer survivors. In the dark, quiet movie theater it’s hard not to be totally immersed in the world of the movie.
  7. Listen to music. Before handing out iPads, the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center gave patients iPods, so they could listen to music as a pleasant distraction.
  8. Learn something new. Learning a new skill or new information often requires all of your mental faculties. This leaves little room for thinking about side effects.
  9. Take up knitting. The repetitive motions of knitting are both distracting and soothing.
  10. Binge watch television. Netflix has made binge watching an entire season of a television show in a day or two easy and affordable. If you don’t already have an account, you can get the streaming service for about $10 a month.
  11. Build a model. Fitting all those little pieces together perfectly requires a lot of concentration that will keep your mind off of pain, stress and nausea.
  12. Do a puzzle. Don’t have a model to build? Try putting a puzzle together instead. 
  13. Try zen doodling. Zen doodling, also known as zentangle, is one of the latest crazes in mindful meditation. It involves drawing repetitive patterns that relax the mind while sparking creativity.
  14. Practice progressive muscle relaxation. Along with guided imagery, researchers studied the benefits of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) to reduce stress in patients before and after radiation. During PMR, you intently focus on relaxing muscles one at a time.
  15. Talk to someone. Simple conversations are one of the easiest ways to distract yourself.
  16. Get a massage. Relaxation, pain relief and distraction can all be achieved with a massage. Just make sure to use a massage practitioner who has experience working with cancer patients.
  17. Groom your pet. Pets are a great stress reliever, and grooming them will give you quality time together while providing distraction from treatment side effects.
  18. Explore virtual reality. New virtual reality devices are being developed, and they are already being used as a distraction therapy for people receiving chemotherapy.
  19. Take a trip. If you have a treatment, tests or scans coming up, plan a trip around that same time to distract you from this source of stress.
  20. Tackle a home-improvement project. Planning out the details, purchasing the supplies and making the improvements are a great long-term distraction that can also improve the value of your home.

It’s important to note that distraction is meant to be a complimentary therapy, not a replacement for the treatments suggested by your doctor. If you’re experiencing side effects that are difficult to manage, discuss them with your physician to create a comprehensive treatment plan that includes enjoyable distractions.


This material is furnished for informational purposes and is for your personal use only. It is not intended as a substitute for the expertise, judgment and specific advice of your doctor. Based on your condition and treatment plan, you may have different medical needs. Please talk to your doctor before making changes to your care plan.