The Many Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Summary: This article describes the many different side effects that occur within the body while taking different kinds of chemotherapy drugs for cancer, or other chronic, life-long illnesses.
Chemotherapy was first designed in the early 20th century when two doctors realized that using nitrogen mustard agents could stop the growth of cancer cells in the body. When chemotherapy was first found, it was not planned to be used for medical purposes, but instead for war. Today, chemotherapy is used to treat a multitude of medical issues from cancer to many other life-long, chronic illnesses.
One of the top reported side effects of chemotherapy is pain. Because chemo can damage the body’s nerve cells, some pain issues that begin during treatment might never completely go away. Headaches, severe stomach pain, abdominal pain, muscle pain, and damage done to nerves can cause tingling, burning, numbness or shooting pains through your body. If you are experiencing pain, consult with your doctor to form a plan on how to relieve some of the pain from your life.
- Fatigue makes you feel tired and exhausted all of the time. Simple ways to combat fatigue would be to step outside and get some fresh air, or to take a gentle, slow walk. Attempting to refocus your mind on the tough days can help you to see farther through the tunnel of life.
- Hair loss is especially common due to the nature of the chemotherapy drug itself. As it is made to attack cancer cells and kill them, it also attacks other fast-growing types of cells, including the hair follicles all over your body. Many will see their eyebrows and pubic hair disappear first, followed by patches of their head hair. Some choose to shave their head once this begins, and others find a wig or head-wrap to cover.
- Easy bruising and bleeding happen when platelet count is low during treatment. Along with bruising and bleeding, you may also find petechiae, which are small red and purple dots, all over your body. While a certain amount of bruising or bleeding is normal, any larger changes, or areas that will not stop bleeding, should be reported to your medical care team immediately.
- Infection is common and comes in many forms while on chemotherapy. Because chemo wears down at the body’s natural defense system, or immune system, illnesses and infections can easily take over the body. Preventing and avoiding infections and germs become a high priority for those on chemotherapy. Simple things like washing hands, covering your mouth when you sneeze, and other basic health tasks can help avoid being exposed. Many of those on chemo also wear face masks and gloves to help ward off unavoidable germs in public places during cold and flu season especially.
- Anemia, or low red blood cell counts, is affected because the chemotherapy wipes out many of our healthy cells, too. Anemia can make you feel extremely tired, and can cause dangerous problems in the heart, brain and nerves. Bouts of anemia while on treatment can also be connected to the high-stress and fatigue caused from the course of care and treatments during recovery. If you feel abnormally tired, be sure to mention this to your doctor upon your next check-in.
- Nausea and vomiting are common side effects that can occasionally be combated with anti-nausea medications like Zofran or Phenergan. There are a multitude of these medications on the market, and your doctor can help you decide which would be most beneficial to your case. The worst vomiting bouts are usually hours after the chemotherapy has been administered, and usually subsides after twenty-four hours. Some nausea is more constant and mixed with pain can be hard to control. If your nausea or vomiting is not being controlled, do not wait to contact your doctor.
- Appetite changes are common and can be challenging to deal with. Chemotherapy tends to make the stomach sensitive and touchy. Add in vomiting and nausea, and many do not feel like eating; although, the calories are vital to a proper recovery. The type of chemo administered seems to determine how sickness and appetite changes will play out. If you have noticed a change in your appetite, weight loss or gain, talk with your doctor to find out what you can do to level out and maintain.
- Constipation and diarrhea happen from the load of medications during treatment, and irregularity of diet once the routine of care begins. Your doctor will educate you on diet choices to help keep your bowel moving during treatment and offer medications that will help keep your stool soft and moving. Stool impaction is a common side effect of those on chemo who do not follow the bowel protocols and pay attention to having a regular bowel schedule.
- Mouth, tongue, and throat problems such as sores and pain with swallowing. Sores in the mouth develop days after treatment and can last weeks after that. These sores, mucositis, are painful and can sometimes become infected. These are harder to treat because they are in the mouth, which is a warm, wet area introduced to many bacteria per day. Keeping your mouth clean, using special mouthwash, rinsing frequently after eating, and using Chapstick to keep the lips moist are all ways to help avoid mouth sores.
- Nerve and muscle problems such as numbness, tingling, and pain are nerve disorders that arise during treatment and can be very bothersome. In some cases, this neuropathy lasts until chemotherapy is done, and the pains go away. In other cases, the pain sticks around after treatment, and becomes part of everyday life. By maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and being honest with your doctors about the pain, there are many treatment plans and courses of action that can be taken to help reduce the pain of everyday living.
- Skin and nail changes such as dry skin and color change. Skin can become very dry and scaly. Using a special moisturizer all over the body can help keep skin elastic and moving. Nails can become very brittle and break very easily. To avoid the breaks, keep nails trimmed short and wear dish gloves or gardening gloves when doing tasks that require a lot of action with your hands.
- Urine and bladder changes and kidney problems are common because of the invasiveness of treatment. Chemotherapy, while used to target only cancer cells, also kills many healthy cells as well. During radiation, the bladder can become inflamed and irritated causing difficulty with urination and bladder control. The loss of hormones after surgery or after treatment can also cause issues with this. If you notice a decrease in the amount of urine output, pain with urination, red or colored urine, blood in your urine, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting, or severe fatigue, please immediately consult your doctor. These are signs of kidney damage and your medical care team should intervene as soon as possible.
- Weight changes on chemotherapy can fluctuate in either direction. Some people who can no longer move around as much from the constant sickness and fluid retention begin to gain weight. Others who are constantly sick and not ingesting calories begin to lose weight too quickly. Both situations are not ideal, as maintaining and keeping the weight in a healthy, steady range would be best. Discuss with your doctor and health care team on the best approach to weight maintenance for you.
- Chemo brain, which can affect concentration and focus in just about every aspect of life. Doctors often refers to this as chemotherapy related cognitive impairment, chemo fog, or cognitive dysfunction. Chemo brain has been compared to “pregnancy brain” which is the same sort of confusing, can’t-ever-find-your-keys sort of blocker. Many doctors also attribute this with the heavy stress and turmoil from living with and living through diagnosis and treatment.
- Mood changes are common, as the medication load is extreme. Being sick, facing your life for what it is and waking up every day ready to fight is complex and complicated. While having a positive mood and outlook is best for healing and overall health, that may not always be possible. If you find that your moods are less than what you like, consult with your doctor to see if you might need a check in with a mental health specialist during these difficult times.
- Changes in libido and sexual function are also common and can hinder the best and strongest of relationships. The toll taken on the body from the physical output of dealing with cancer, and the probable surgeries and reconstructions, force us into getting to know ourselves all over again from the start. This can take a toll mentally and emotionally and might take some time and practice to get back into the swing of things. The great part about our bodies is that there are many, many ways to find pleasure in many different places! Learning and relearning with your partner can be a very beneficial time and offer much more growth to your relationship. If at any time you are having a hard time connecting with your partner during treatment, reach out to your doctor who could advise a relationship therapist or counselor to help you get through the tough times.
- If you are experiencing sexual dysfunction alongside your treatment, consider a more holistic way to approach reclaiming your intimacy. There are numerous therapeutic devices made for both men and women to help ease into a new way to find pleasure and be intimate with your partner once more. For example, a man suffering from erectile dysfunction would find a great benefit in a device made to bring feeling, pleasure, and ejaculation in a completely flaccid penis. The Reclaiming Intimacy’s Titan does just that! For women who have had cervical cancer and surgical treatment, they may experience vaginal tightening and pain from scar tissue and recovery. By beginning dilator therapy, this can help to stretch tissues and loosen hard scar tissue causing issues with intimacy for women. Reclaiming Intimacy offers numerous dilator sets to help with this and many other intimacy related problems that may arise during your treatment.
- Fertility problems are common, and some of the most hated side effects from chemotherapy. As the overall age of those being diagnosed with cancer decrease, more and more humans are faced with treatment before their childbearing years, or smack in the middle. In the past few years, there have been many advancements that allow eggs to be frozen, or even fertilized and saved for a more stable, healthier time in life. Fertility issues can affect both men and women going through treatment, and most are advised to practice only safe sex with protection during treatment. These treatments have been shown to damage sperm and eggs in development.