[Skip to Content]

Steroids and Cancer Treatment

What Are Steroids?

When you hear the word steroid you may think of "roid rage" or side effects in athletes, weightlifters, and bodybuilders who use them. But don't worry if your doctor prescribed a steroid as part of your treatment for cancer. It's not "that" kind of steroid. It's an important cancer medicine.

The most common steroids used include:

  • hydrocortisone
  • prednisone
  • methylprednisolone
  • dexamethasone

How Do Steroids Work?

Steroids reduce inflammation (irritation and swelling) in the body. As part of cancer treatment, they can:

  • kill cancer cells and shrink tumors as part of chemotherapy
  • decrease swelling
  • reduce allergic reactions (before transfusions, for example)
  • reduce nausea from chemotherapy and radiation
  • help headaches or other symptoms caused by brain tumors

What Are the Side Effects of Steroids?

Steroids used in medical treatments can have some side effects. Talk to your doctor and ask questions if you have concerns.

You may not have any side effects. But if you do, don't worry — they'll only last as long as you're taking the steroids. When you stop your treatment, things will return to normal pretty quickly.

Common side effects of steroid treatments include:

  • increased appetite
  • weight gain, often in places you wouldn't expect, like your cheeks or the back of your neck
  • mood swings
  • trouble sleeping
  • stomach upset or ulcers
  • osteoporosis (weaker bones)
  • higher blood pressure
  • higher blood sugar than normal. Sometimes, people develop diabetes temporarily. If you already have diabetes, you'll need to check your blood sugar levels more closely.
  • for girls, missed or late periods
  • bruising/stretch marks

Less common side effects include difficulty fighting infections, acne flare-ups, and increased facial hair.

How Do People Take Steroids for Cancer Treatment?

Doctors can give steroids for cancer treatment in several ways:

  • by an injection into the muscle (IM)
  • through a vein (IV)
  • by mouth (orally) in a liquid or pill form
  • as a cream to apply to a part of the skin

Your doctors will give you all the details. But there are some things to remember when taking steroids by mouth for cancer treatment. For instance, both liquid and pill steroids have a bitter, somewhat unpleasant taste.

To make sure you don't miss any of the doses:

  • Mix the liquid steroid in a small amount of a tasty liquid like your favorite juice and be sure to drink all of it.
  • You can also add a few drops of flavoring like chocolate syrup or peppermint to the spoon of medicine.
  • Steroid pills are quite small and mixing them in applesauce or pudding can make them easier to take.

What Else Should I Know?

Steroids can irritate the stomach. To protect it, always take them with food in your stomach. Your doctor might recommend that you take a stomach medicine, either a prescription drug or an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine such as Zantac, Pepcid, or Prilosec. It can help to start these medicines a couple of days before you begin the steroids and continue them for a couple of days after the steroids are done.

Don't stop taking steroids without your doctor's advice. If you notice anything strange while you're being treated with steroids, tell your parents and the doctor right away. If needed, the steroid medicine may be decreased slowly over time (described as being weaned or tapered). Other times doctors may just stop the steroids. When this happens, it's possible that your body could go through a type of withdrawal if it's placed under a stressful situation like a new fever or infection.

A lot of steroid treatments happen in a doctor's office or clinic. But if you're on a long-term steroid treatment and have pills to take at home, your doctor may give you a steroid card or recommend a medical alert bracelet. It's important to keep this card with you (or wear your medical alert bracelet) at all times. If there's an emergency, the card or bracelet will let doctors know you're being treated with steroids (or have been recently), which can change the treatment they need to give you.

Date reviewed: June 2018