Chemotherapy, a treatment administered to prevent the growth of cancer cells often leaves behind certain side effects on cancer patients. But, much of this depends on the type of therapy been offered.
Sometimes, these drugs function in destroying cancer cells, but can also tamper with other healthy cells in the body. Often, short term and long term side effects of chemotherapy are characterized by observable symptoms.
If you have undergone chemotherapy either recently or in the past (or know someone who has), this article will examine some of the side effects that may be experienced and how to deal with them.
Table of contents
- Chemo side effects
- Short-term chemotherapy side effects
- Long term side effects of chemotherapy
- Further reading
Chemo side effects
Chemotherapy side effects differ from person to person. And it is sometimes dependent on factors such as the kind of cancer, stage of cancer, areas surrounding the specific location of cancer, the drugs used, the dosage and most especially the health condition of the patient involved. Thus, putting this in mind, this article will focus on the most common known side effects and how to deal with each one.
Short-term chemotherapy side effects
Chemotherapy drug use for most people, in effect, has been reported to cause fatigue. A form of weariness or tiredness resulting from exhaustion (low in energy). And this effect seems to go on for a long period of time.
This effect changes depending on day-to-day activities and doing some things that have always been done before may no longer be possible. What makes it more difficult is, resting or even sleeping doesn’t seem to take away the fatigue.
People concerned end up getting sad when they realize they are getting so little of what they wish to get from life since they are always tired. Though it seems like no way out from all the distressing symptoms fatigue causes, there are ways in which it can be managed.
- Eat proper nourishing food, Eat well: The diet you keep can go a long way in reducing the effect of fatigue since food is a source of energy for the body. Putting into consideration your goal is to fight fatigue caused by chemotherapy, you must beware of the kind of food you eat. It may be complicated for you to know what kind of diet to keep, so it is advisable you visit your doctor or a dietician for proper recommendations. Moreover having known what exactly to eat or not to eat, sticking to the recommended food schedule, if any, is also advisable. But if it occurs that you undergo loss of appetite, a significant chemo side effect, you can follow these tips on how to deal with the loss of appetite
- Relax well: Relaxation cuts across different ways of calming your mind and body. You can get fresh air, go for a walk, get a massage, and go for breathing exercises- these help a lot in relaxing. Another area of relaxation involves doing things you love. Is it seeing a movie, going to the beach, knitting, speaking with a friend, singing etc. try doing anything that excites you. It helps a lot in dealing with fatigue.
- Avoid things that make you tired.
- Go for counselling.
- Accept help from family and friends: If your family or friends offer to help with things like cooking, doing the laundry or tidying the house, accept and appreciate their offer to help.
- Have a regular pattern of sleep and follow it: sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Although sleeping may seem not to completely stop fatigue, maintaining a healthy sleeping routine should be a priority.
- Try to join support groups: It may be a bit easier to cope with your fatigue when you mix with others passing through the same thing as you. Check out this link to see such a group you can join.
- Talk with a trusted friend about your worries.
Nausea and vomiting
Chemotherapy treatment can lead to feeling sick and vomiting and it can start as early as your treatment starts.
- Tell your doctor about your symptoms so that recommendations can be given on what to do or take.
- Staying hydrated can really help, so drink water little by little, it’s even better to take chilled drinks.
- Sucking ice cubes can help relieve your nauseous feeling
- Avoid wearing tight clothes but free ones for easy fresh air.
- Have enough rest after food.
Chemo hair loss
Hair loss also called Alopecia occurs when chemo drugs work negatively in the body, posing damage to the hair follicles responsible for hair growth. Thus cancer patient suffers from hair loss partially or completely.
This effect does more than to take one hair away but also one’s self-confidence. Having to cope with people’s reactions regarding your hair is uncomfortable.
In such cases, practical steps may be taken to deal with this.
How to deal with hair loss
- Wear a head covering.
- It is advised to cut your hair even before it starts to fall off, this makes it easy for you to get used to seeing less hair on your head.
- Try to wear a cold cap during your treatment, talk to your nurse or doctor about that. This can minimize hair loss in some cases.
- Use of mild hair product.
- The use of heat on the head should be avoided. Try not to use things like heater rollers, hair straighteners etc.
- Use of a soft hairbrush is encouraged.
- It will be good to use a hairnet or soft cap when going to bed. This prevents you from seeing falling hair on your pillow and bed.
- Wearing a hair covering such as a cap or tying a scarf or even fancy hats helps keep the scalp cool during treatment thus prevent some hair loss.
- In a situation where hair loss can not be prevented wearing a wig of your choice style can be a solution.
- To prevent drawing attention to your hair, you can try using make-up that draws attention to your face or you can try using beautiful jewelry which draws attention to your neckline or you can wear bright tops, gowns, ties, or a shirt. Doing these takes people’s attention away from your hair to other parts of your body.
Chemo hinders the production of white blood cells or neutrophils (a cell responsible for the production of antibodies that combat infection). This makes cancer patients become more susceptible to infection.
How to deal with infection.
- Cultivate and maintain clean hygiene by washing your hands regularly. This helps against ingesting bacteria or viruses causing infection. Therefore leaving little or no work for your white blood cell.
- As much as possible avoid crowded areas such as the buses or cinemas.
- Use gentle moisturizing creams for your skin to prevent dryness.
- Avoid the use of sharp object like a razor.
- Visit your doctor for an antibiotics drug prescription. Intake of such drugs will fight against the diseases causing infection in your body.
Mouth sores or mucositis
Some chemo drugs can cause mouth sores or mucositis, others may cause changes in taste.
Continuous intake of the drugs can cause inflammation of the mouth lining. In this case, the surface of the inner mouth may become red and swollen with a whitish film. This causes a painful sensation so it results in difficulty in eating or drinking. A high dose intake of chemo drugs especially increases the pain.
In some cases, studies show that mouth sores surface within about five to ten days of treatment, and stops within two to three weeks after treatment ends.
Mouth sore symptoms
- Pain in the mouth while eating cold or hot food.
- Mouth bleeding.
- More mouth mucus.
- Mouth pus.
- Pain in the throat.
- Dry sensation in the mouth or throat.
How to deal with a mouth sore
- Regularly keep your mouth clean.
- Call the attention of your health caregiver if you are going through severe symptoms or one or more symptoms mentioned earlier.
- The use of pain killers or morphine can help control the effects of mouth sores thus making eating and drinking easier. But speak to your doctor if this will work in your own case or for any other recommendations.
- Keep your mouth moist by drinking plenty of water or sucking ice chips or popsicles.
- Avoid salty, spicy, acidic and hot food but eat cold and moist food.
- Rinse your mouth. The American Cancer Society recommends the use of a natural mixture to rinse the mouth, instead of using mouth wash.
This mixture includes: EITHER
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- 2 cups of water
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- 1 quart of water
It is advised that you thoroughly stir the solution well, then gently swish it around the mouth and then spit it out.
Long term side effects of chemotherapy
Some side effect caused by chemotherapy can take months and years before they surface and may take a long time before they go away. This includes:
Damage to the lung resulting from the use of chemo drugs.
Symptoms of lung damage
- Pain in the chest
- Shortness of breath
How to deal with the symptoms of lung damage
- Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms
- Try exercise that is easy for you to do so as to prevent breathlessness.
- Avoid smoking or areas where people smoke.
Some chemotherapy treatment can affect the reproductive organs. This can lead to infertility in both males and females.
It can also lead to early menopause and since chemo treatment damages the eggs and sperm it makes it hard for a man to father a child and women to get pregnant. This could cause a long time side effect.
Dealing with the prospect of infertility
- For a man, the doctor may recommend sperm banking or testicular tissue freezing before you begin chemotherapy, especially if you want to father a child after your treatment.
- For a woman, the doctor may advise embryo freezing, oocyte freezing or fertility-preserving surgery. Talk to your doctor before your treatment about the process and cost of freezing your eggs.
Secondary cancer caused by chemotherapy
The fear of having your cancer come back can be overwhelming but the chances of chemotherapy long time side bringing back cancer or causing metastatic cancer are very slim.
However, it is still advisable to maintain a healthy diet after cancer treatment, exercise well, and visit your oncologist if you experience any abnormal changes in your health.
These other tips can also help:
- Getting correct and up-to-date information can help you better understand what you went through, how to care for your health now, and the services available to you after your treatment.
- Talk about your anger, fear, and sadness with someone you trust. Try writing your feelings down if you don’t want to talk about them.
- Stay positive, using your energy to keep well.
Nerve damage as a chemo side effect
Some chemo drugs can cause damage to the nerves. Symptoms include:
High temperature, difficulty in urinating, tremor of the hand and body, difficulty hearing, seeing or walking.
These symptom may occur after chemotherapy treatment is completed.
How to deal with damaging nerves
- Some medications can help reduce this chemo side effect. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms so as to get a recommendation medication and if necessary go for rehabilitation.
- Make changes in your home such as adding more light to the house.
- Handle sharp objects with care.
- Walk slowly holding rails and remove anything that can make you fall in your home.
- Try wearing flat shoes with rubber soles to prevent falling.
- Give yourself enough time to sleep
Chemo brain or brain fog
Chemo brain/fog is a decrease in memory and thinking, which may lead to the inability to remember certain things, reduced concentration, and the inability to learn new things.
Side effects such as chemo brain occur during or after chemotherapy treatment. It can occur for a short period of time or a lifetime and disturb a person from doing well in very important activities e.g. school, work etc.
Signs of chemo brain
- Mental confusion
- Inability to multitask
- Easily forgets things
- Inability to self-decide
- Inability to remember names, dates and daily activities.
- Changes in mood (mood swing)
What to do about chemo brain
Get a journal that contains your daily activities and events. This will help track your daily affairs and detect things that can triggers issues for you.
See if these other tips can also help:
- You could write out all your task for each day, where you plan to go and how long it will take for you to finish your work.
- Exercise daily
- Sleep well.
- Do not multitask.
- Setting reminders on your phone and in your home can also help.
- Have a routine that is easy for you to follow.
- Try and manage your stress.
- You can repeatedly say what you want to do, it makes it easy for you to remember.
- Eat more vegetables and fruit.
- Join support groups.
- Try making use of your brain by playing puzzle games, picking up new hobbies e.g. writing, learning to play instruments etc.
Some chemo drugs can cause bone loss to increase, leading to bone fractures.
How to deal with osteoporosis
- Bone loss is related to lack of vitamin D, so try to take vitamins rich in vitamin D.
- Take enough calcium.
- Exercise well, especially the exercises you can do well with, at a pace that is easy for you.
- Get enough sunlight.
- Talk to your doctor about the pain you may be having to get the needed help on how to deal with it.
Chemotherapy treatment can be very expensive depending on where you live and can it can be draining, having to travel to get treatment, paying to stay at the hospital during treatment, eating expenses, time expenses and so on. These can mount up and be so hard to cope with while facing the short and long term side effect of chemo.
Any help provided during this period can be so priceless
What to do about about financial pressures incurred due to cancer treatments
- It could be helpful to plan ahead and work out the areas where you can cut costs before starting treatment.
- Accept all the help you can get, it may include friends offering to prepare your meals or to take you to the hospital for treatment.
- Open up on what you need to friends who are offering to help
- Check out cancer support groups online.
You may develop a lot of emotions from the beginning of chemo which can continue after the treatment ends. You may sometimes have the fear of having cancer again, the guilt of being a survivor (especially if you have a friend that lost their lives to cancer), or anxiety of not knowing what to do when people expect too much from you. You will need deal with all these emotions and many more of them.
Tips that can help:
- Having a friend you can connect and talk about your problems can be very helpful.
- Try not to avoid these emotions but accept them.
- Go for a regular check-up to prevent a second cancer
The way different people respond to treatments are different and the above are the worst-case scenarios with tips on overcoming and coping with issues should they arise.
The best thing to do is remain positive, do the things you can do and listen to your body. Try to take control of, what is coming ahead by staying informed.
Regularly communicate with your health care providers on questions and talk to them about your concerns. Before starting chemotherapy ask your doctor (oncologist) the side effect so you can anticipate how you can cope.
For family and friends reading this article, it isn’t easy to work down this road with your loved ones, do your best to help out whenever possible. If you plan to get them something to help them cope with chemo treatment and you are at a crossroad check out this link for suggestions
As you struggle to pass by each day, I hope this article plays its own role in helping ease some issues. Though it is not easy, I hope you keep finding reasons to keep living. Stay alive, stay safe and better health to you.
Oluwatoyin Joy Oke finished her 4 years course/ program in 2018 as a public health practitioner in Osun State University, Nigeria. And has developed in skills involving prevention, treatment and care of diseases.
She works as a Linkage Coordinator connecting people from the community to treatment and care of Tuberculosis and HIV. She recently picked up another skill in writing which she so far enjoy.
She volunteers in creating awareness for people on topics relating to Cancer, mostly the ones common to women (Cervical and breast cancer), mental health, and HIV. In past years she has received certificates of appreciation from different organizations.
Her hobbies are cooking, watching movies, and writing. She places her worship of God as first in her life and giving of herself to her family and others is a priority.