While chemotherapy treatment for cancer helps kill fast growing cancer cells, the treatment often also kills healthy cells, as the chemo drugs usually must travel throughout the body to fight the cancer. Damage to the patient’s healthy cells may cause side effects. While these side effects are usually not as bad as the patient may expect, many patients understandbly are still concerned about what types of chemotherapy side effects they may experience.
Fortunately, for most chemotherapy side effects, medicines may be prescribed to help ease the patients symptoms or to help protect the patient’s healthy cells. There are more targeted chemotherapy treatments now which go after cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells alone.
During the course of the patient’s chemo treatments, there may still be some common side effects, as well as some not so common ones. Most patients do not get all of the symptoms, and some patients experience few or any. Let’s review these.
Common Chemotherapy side Effects
Some of the more common side effects include nausea, hair loss, low blood counts, diarrhea or constipation, mouth sores, fatigue and either weight loss or weight gain.
Many patients are concerned about whether they will experience hari loss and, if so, how much hair loss. Not all chemotherapy treatments cause hair loss. There are some cancer drugs that are more likely than others to cause hair loss. Please be sure to talk with your doctor and nurses about how likely you are to have hair loss from your particular cancer treatment. Should you lose your hair during the treatment, there are many options available including wigs and other head coverings. It is also not uncommon to lose eyebrows during your chemo treatment.
If hair loss is likely, some patients have found it helpful to explore possible wigs even before they undergo chemotherapy. On a positive note, your hair should grow back 6 to 8 weeks after completion of treatment. Please visit our hair loss during chemotherapy page to learn more.
We try very hard to reduce the patient’s frequency of nausea and hopefully prevent vomiting. Fortunately there are many medicines that we may prescribe to help prevent this symptom. Your oncologist and nurses will provide you with a list of instructions on how to take specific medicines to help prevent any nausea or vomitting. If any of these medications are not working, there are a number of other options.
Fatigue, often referred to as cancer fatigue, is a common problem with chemotherapy treatment. It’s normal to have some sort of fatigue during your treatment and this fatigue may often get worse as the treatments go on. It’s important to try and remain active during this period, just getting some excercise will help. Even if you just want to take a nap, it’s probably better to get up and move around. Overall, this will help your energy level.
Fatigue is often one of the more frustrating symptoms for patients during cancer treatment. Throughout this symptom, it’s important for the patient to pace themselves and to minimize stress. Frequent rest periods during the day, rather than just one long period of rest tends to be helpful. And stress can drain anyone’s energy level, even when you’re not battling cancer. Some patients have found the following helpful in dealing with stress: Yoga, meditation, prayer, reading, listening to music or taking a walk.
Besides exercising moderately, it’s important to get enough sleep, such as eight hours of sleep per night and take some naps throughout the day. Unfortunately, too mcuh rest may also lead to the you feeling more tired. Also eat regularly to help you maintain your baseline energy level.
Mouth sores may be a nuissance during chemotherapy not only because of discomfort but becuase they interfere with eating. Again, there are remedies to make this common side effect more tolerable. Often good oral hygiene and diet can help manage with mouth sore symptoms. If you experience mouth sores, please be sure to let your oncologist, as mouth sores may interfere with your ability to eat, or drink.
Weight Loss or Weight Gain
Every person responds differently to chemotherapy. While some patients may experience weight loss during their chemotherapy treatments, other patients may actually gain weight.
Patients who lose weight during their cancer treatment do so mostly because they are unable to maintain good nutrition. Symptoms from chemotherapy may include loss of appetite, as well as an upset stomach from nausea or diarrhea. And the cancer itself may also cause a loss of appetite.
During chemotherapy, taste and smell aversions may lead to eating less. Food may taste differently and mouth sores may also promote less eating. The goal is to keep your weight stable. This is not the time for overweight patients to try and lose weight. Patients are encouraged,however, to eat healthier melass, which hopefully will carry over to post-treatment.
While it’s generally more common for patients to experience weight loss during chemotherapy. Some patients may actually gain weight. Chemotherapy may cause the body to retain excess fluid or, because of associated fatigue, the patient’s reduced physical activity may lead to weight gain. Some medications, such as steroids, used to reduce symptoms such as swelling, or hormone therapy to decrease the amount of estrogen may also contribute to a patient’s weight gain.
Low Blood Cell Counts
Certain chemotherapy drugs may damage a patient’s bone marrow – the spongy material found in your bones. Bone marrow produces blood cells, which grow rapidly, aming them very sensitive to the effects of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy kills many of the cells in your bone marrow, but these cells generally recover with time. The most serious complications of low blood cell counts include infection and anemia. Your doctor can tell you whether your specific chemotherapy treatment will put you at risk of low blood cell counts.
How Long will the Chemotherapy Treatment Take?
The length of a patient’s chemotherapy treatment will be determined by the type of cancer, the stage of the cancer, the types of cancer drugs that are prescribed, as well as the expected toxicities of the drugs and the amount of time required to recover from these toxicities. Many chemotherapy treatment schedules have been determined through clinical trials that compared them and determined which had the most benefit and was the most tolerated.
Most chemo treatments are given in cycles, which allows the cancer cells to be attacked at their most vulnerable times and allows the patient’s healthy cells time to recover from the damage. There are generally three elements regarding the chemotherapy cycle time: the duration of the cycle, the frequency of the cycle and how many cycles, which is the length of chemotherapy from start to finish.
Rest assured that all of us involved in cancer treatment are here for you and working hard for your success, whether that’s a cure, or whether that’s maintaining or whether that’s improving symptoms, we are here to fight with you.
Learn More About Chemotherapy Treatments
Oncologist Stephen Lemon, MD talks about discusses how chemotherapy works as well as the different types of treatments available.
Learn more about Chemotherapy and the different types of treatments available.