Understanding and Coping with Chemotherapy Side Effects – A Comprehensive Guide

Chemotherapy’s Side Effects: Chemotherapy is the procedure used to slow down or stop the growth of fast-growing cells in the body. It is also used to kill those mutated cells in the body. Therefore, it is used in the treatment of cancer as the cancer cell’s growth rate is faster than the normal cells of the body. There are a variety of chemo drugs are available that can be used solo or in combination with other drugs.

Nevertheless, chemotherapy is an effective treatment to cure cancer, but it also produces a series of cancer. Some side effects are mild and treatable but other are serious and need medical attention.

Use of Chemotherapy

It is used in a variety of cases which include –

  1. As primary treatment– in order to cure cancer without employing other drugs or treatment measures, it is used solely to treat cancer.
  2. As secondary treatment – after primary treatment, chemotherapy is given to kill the hidden cancer cells.
  3. Neoadjuvant therapy – to prepare the body for other treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy is used. It is used to shrink the existing cancer cells or to reduce their number.
  4. Palliative chemotherapy – to relieve the symptoms and signs of cancer. Chemotherapy reduces pain and other symptoms by reducing the number of cancer cells in the body.
  5. In other diseases – chemo is also used in the treatment of diseases other than cancer, such as – bone marrow and immune system diseases.
  6. Bone marrow diseases – it is cured by bone marrow transplant. And chemotherapy is used to prepare the body for the required procedure.
  7. Immune system disease – in diseases such as lupus and arthritis, chemotherapy is used to control the hyperactive immune system.

Why side effects?

Chemotherapy targets killing the fast-growing cells in the body as cancers have high growth rate than normal cells. But, some normal cells also have speedier growth rates due to short life span in comparison to other cells. Due to this the chemotherapy trends to kill those normal cells also. This causes some side effects along with severe weakness.

Although the severity of these symptoms varies from person to person, type of cancer, and stage of cancer. The cells such as the erythrocytes in the bone marrow, follicular cells of hair, and cells of the digestive tract, mouth, and reproductive system are more like to get affected by chemotherapy.

Health experts try to cure cancer with minimum side effects and also try not to use the same drugs having similar side effects. They also may give some medicine to relieve side effects even before they appear.

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What can be the duration of the side effects?

The side effects a patient may experience will differ from person to person and type of cancer. Some can go away quickly and some may appear later in life or some may last for life-long. Some people experience mild side effects and some experience long-term and severe side effects such as infertility. It may cause long-term damage to the heart, kidneys, and reproductive system.

There may be an occurrence of secondary cancer due to delayed chemo side effects. It shakes patients for how long chemo will go on and how painful it will be. In addition to this how many side effects they will encounter? If you have any such queries, please consult your oncologist for support and clearance.

Understanding and Coping with Chemotherapy Side Effects - A Comprehensive Guide

Common side effects and their management

Weakness- patients after chemotherapy do feel tiredness or weakness in the body. If you are involved in some physical activity or you are working somewhere, you need to get some time off and do proper rest until your chemo is completed.

Management can be done by –

  • Taking proper rest
  • Avoid tedious tasks and going out.
  • A little exercise or walking might bring some energy. But, if you are not able to do this even do not push yourself too much.
  • Keep a nurse or a family member for all-time assistance, till you feel like doing all stuff by yourself.

Nausea – during the course of this treatment, a patient will feel sick or want to vomit often. In such a case the oncologist might suggest some medicine to prevent this.

Management can be done by:-

  • Taking some medicines or capsules
  • Drip into vein or injection
  • Capsule to keep in the bottom area

Although, these medicines can also cause some effects like constipation, insomnia, headache, etc.

Hair loss – it’s a usual side effect of chemotherapy. It will start from the first session of your treatment and by the 1-2 months of treatment you will lose a lot of hair. It is temporary and once the treatment is completed the hair starts to grow back but may have different colors or textures.

Management can be done by:-

The management or prevention of this can be done using a cold cap. A cold cap will be of bicycle’s helmet size and will keep the temperature of your scalp to lower degrees. This will decrease the blood flow and eventually, the reach of medicine will be less.

Infections – well, chemotherapy suppresses the immune system or reduces its ability to fight other infections. Therefore, it is very important for the patient to go for a regular check-up for any other infections or to look for the symptoms.

Management can be done by:-

  • Keep your surroundings clean.
  • Stay away from the infected person from any disease.
  • Use sanitary products in the washroom as well.
  • Always use fresh clothes to wear.
  • If you catch any infection, consult your doctor. They will prescribe you some antibiotics.

Anaemia – as mentioned earlier, chemotherapy also kills the RBCs along with cancer cells. This can reduce the amount of blood in your body and even cause Anaemia. The symptoms may include heavy breathing, tiredness, low energy, heart palpitation, a whitening or yellowing of the skin, or pale color.

Management can be done by:-

  • Ask your doctor, if you can consume non-veg products such as beef, lamb, etc.
  • Soybeans and nuts.
  • Dry fruits such as walnut, apricot, cashew, etc.
  • High iron content vegetables such as beetroot, tomato, carrot, spinach, etc.
  • Wholegrain as in brown rice.

Abnormal bruises or bleeding – platelets are essential in our body to perform clotting at the time of cuts or any internal bleeding but chemotherapy may reduce the no. of platelets in the body. This increases the clotting time and bleeding time in our body, causing the appearance of abnormal bruises and bleeding. 

Management can be done by:-

In case you are experiencing this, you need to contact your doctor immediately. The solution for this will be an increase in the platelets number in the body.

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Sore mouth – as chemotherapy also affects the mouth cells this can cause a sore mouth. The symptoms may include ulcers, dry mouth, burning sensation in the mouth, difficulty in eating and swallowing, bad breath, etc.

Management can be done by:-

  • Consulting doctors, for ointment or medicine
  • Avoid hot spicy food.
  • Laser treatment can help make the situation better
  • Avoid sharp food or food difficult in chewing.

Although this may get better eventually after the treatment is finished.

Diarrhea and constipation – it may be caused with the initiation of treatment and will get better with some medicines and even a change in diet plan.

Management can be done by:

  • Taking a properly planned diet recommended by the doctor
  • Some medicines will do a lot of help.

Infertility – many patients find their libido is reduced after chemo, but this is temporary and it will increase or return to normal level after chemo. Some patients may suffer temporary or permanent infertility after chemo.

Management can be done by:

Although it cannot be managed, but patients may consider alternative methods such as artificial insemination, or IVF. Also, it will not be a very safe option for women to conceive during chemo as treatment drugs can harm the fetus. So, barrier methods such as a condom should be considered.

Reduced hunger – it is common to feel the loss of hunger or reduced hunger in this.

Management can be done by:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Have multiple smaller meals rather than large meals
  • Eat healthy snacks for munching
  • Have smaller bites and sips.

Other – other minor side effects may include loss of concentration or sleeplessness. This will go away after the treatment is finished and can easily be managed with some medical help.

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FAQs Related to Side Effects of Chemotherapy

When to see a doctor?

If symptoms such as high fever, heavy bleeding, unhealed wounds for a long time, heavy breathing, diarrhea, pain, swelling, sore mouth, etc., appear, you should immediately seek medical help.

Why does a patient feel side effects after chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is done to kill the fast-growing cells, in order to do so it also destroys some other fast-growing normal cells such as RBCs, reproductive organ cells, and immune cells, therefore increasing weakness and some other symptoms as side effects.

When these side effects are relieved?

Every individual patient feels different symptoms of different intensities. Some are temporary and do go away after the completion of treatment. But, some are permanent and cause severe damage such as heart and kidney damage as well as infertility. One should consult their doctors about all the symptoms and their management.

Are difficult to focus and imbalance, side effects of chemotherapy?

Yes, chemotherapy can cause short-term memory loss, loss of attention, slow working as well as longer time duration in performing any tasks. Although it will go away after the completion of treatment. This is also easily managed by having someone’s assistance in performing daily tasks and using notepad or mobile remainders.

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