Chemotherapy: Dealing with Side Effects

Chemotherapy works by targeting cancer cells, which are cells that rapidly divide as they grow in the body. But some normal cells that also grow quickly can be hurt by chemotherapy drugs. OCRF researchers are working to develop better “targeted therapies,” which attack cancer cells but leave healthy cells unharmed. Until we develop better targeted treatments, side effects often accompany treatment. Your doctor has many tools and drugs to effectively manage many side effects of chemotherapy. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about side effects you are having.

Here are the cells affected by chemotherapy, the resulting side effects and suggestions to help manage the side effects:

Blood-producing cells in the bone make a range of blood cells that fight infection, help blood clot and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When chemotherapy damages the white blood producing cells, you become susceptible to infections because of a shortage of white blood cells, or with the platelet producing cells you can bruise or bleed easily because of a shortage of platelets and you can feel weak and tired because of a shortage of red blood cells. Throughout chemotherapy your nurses and doctors check for low levels of blood cells. If levels are too low, medicines are available to boost them up.

  • Managing infection: Try to avoid cuts and scrapes, wash your hands often, avoid crowds and people with colds, coughs or other infectious diseases. Drink plenty of fluids and bathe daily, using moisturizer to soften dry and potentially cracked skin.
  • Managing fatigue: Understand your energy level and make accommodations. Do things you enjoy when you have the energy but rest or take naps when you feel the need to. Although exercise when you are tired seems counterintuitive, many women find activities, such as walking or gentle yoga, invigorating. Talk to your doctor before doing any exercise routine. Eating well is very important, too.

Cells in hair roots: Most women being treated for ovarian cancer lose their hair. The hair will eventually grow back, but can be slightly different in color and texture.

  • Managing hair loss: Some women choose to wear a wig so that the loss of hair doesn’t become an outward manifestation of their disease as they try to go about their life. Because women know their hair will fall out from chemotherapy, some will have parties to cut it or will donate their hair to make wigs for other women with cancer.

Cells that line the digestive tract. Nausea, poor appetite, vomiting, constipation and diarrhea, mouth and lip sores are typical side effects of chemotherapy. Drugs are available to help some of these problems.

  • Managing poor appetite: It is important to eat nutritious food, high in protein, when undergoing chemotherapy. You doctor may recommend you see a nutritionist to help you eat right during this time. Eating smaller meals, a few times a day, is often recommended, as is trying to relish food and making it pleasant to experience, like dining with friends and family.
  • Managing nausea and vomiting: Often women feel nauseated before a cycle of chemotherapy because of prior experience. Anti-anxiety drugs and complementary medical techniques, such as meditation or relaxation training, can help. Nausea and vomiting that occurs after chemotherapy can be treated with anti-emetics (anti-nausea) medications. Eating and drinking slowly and after vomiting, and staying hydrated, are very important.
  • Managing constipation: Drink plenty of fluids, eat high fiber foods, move around, try to be consistent with your bowel activity and take a fiber laxative. Talk to your doctor before taking any anti-constipation remedy.
  • Managing mouth and lip sores: Use a soft toothbrush to avoid injuring your mouth and keep your mouth moist, by drinking plenty of fluids. Avoid spicy and harsh foods that can be irritating to your mouth.

 

Hearing loss, kidney damage, pain and tingling or numbness in the hands or feet are other side effects. While most of the side effects go away, tingling can remain for a long time.

 

The National Cancer Institute offers detailed information about managing side effects of chemotherapy here.

Here are some questions the National Cancer Institute suggests you might consider asking a doctor before you start chemotherapy:

  • When will treatment start? When will it end? How often will I have treatment?
  • Which drugs will I have?
  • How do the drugs work?
  • Do you recommend intravenous and intraperitoneal chemotherapy for me? Why?
  • What are the expected benefits of treatment?
  • What are the risks of treatment? What side effects might I have?
  • How can I prevent or treat these side effects?
  • How much will chemotherapy cost? Will my health insurance pay for all of the treatment?

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