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The side effects of mesothelioma chemotherapy include nausea and vomiting, anemia, fatigue, hair loss, bleeding, and digestive problems. Medical teams help patients manage these and other side effects with medications, holistic care, and complementary and alternative therapies.
Treating Mesothelioma with Chemotherapy
Oncologists and medical teams often use multiple treatment strategies for patients with mesothelioma. Known as multimodal treatment, it is the most effective approach for extending a patient’s life.
Chemotherapy is most commonly used, often with surgery, to shrink and then remove mesothelioma tumors. Alternatively, doctors might use chemotherapy after surgery to eliminate any cancer cells left behind.
Chemotherapy as the Main Treatment for Mesothelioma
For mesothelioma patients not eligible for surgery, chemotherapy is often the primary treatment. It may be used along with radiation therapy or immunotherapy. The chemotherapy drugs most commonly used for mesothelioma are:
How Long Is Chemo for Mesothelioma?
Oncologists provide patients with chemotherapy in cycles. Each chemotherapy cycle takes three to four weeks to complete. Patients then take a break to rest before an additional cycle. The total number of cycles depends on the patient, the cancer’s progression, and the effectiveness of the treatment.
Are There Drawbacks of Treating Mesothelioma with Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is currently one of the most effective treatments for mesothelioma, but it is not without drawbacks. Systemic chemotherapy exposes healthy tissues to the drugs, which can cause side effects.
Patients must discuss the pros and cons of treatment with their doctors. To complete chemotherapy, continue it, or stop when the side effects are too much is a personal decision for each patient.
Why Does Chemotherapy Cause Side Effects?
Chemotherapy is one of the most effective ways to treat cancer. It uses drugs that kill rapidly dividing cells, like cancer cells.
Because the drugs cannot tell the difference between cancer cells and normal cells, they also kill healthy cells, resulting in side effects.
Chemotherapy mostly affects certain types of healthy cells. These include hair follicles, mouth, digestive, and reproductive cells, and bone marrow cells that produce red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
Doctors try to balance administering doses high enough to kill cancer cells with minimizing damage to healthy cells.
Common Side Effects of Mesothelioma Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy has many potential side effects. Which ones any given patient will experience depend on the dose, type, frequency, and duration of chemotherapy treatment. They can be temporary or permanent.
Some of the most common side effects are:
- Hair loss. Most people think of hair loss when they think of chemotherapy. It is common but ahir usually grows back.
- Pain. Chemotherapy causes many types of pain for various reasons. You might experience headaches, muscle pain, nerve pain, or stomach pain.
- Gastrointestinal symptoms. Chemotherapy commonly causes nausea and vomiting. Some patients, especially those undergoing peritoneal treatment, experience diarrhea and constipation.
- Fatigue. Also very common is fatigue, which many patients describe as severe exhaustion.
- Anemia. One potential cause of fatigue is low red blood cell count, known as anemia. Anemia also causes shortness of breath and dizziness.
- Mouth sores and changes in taste. Mouth symptoms include damage to the tissue resulting in painful sores. Some patients also experience changes in taste that make eating more difficult.
- Changes in appetite. Often because of these mouth issues, patients eat less and lose weight.
- Bruising or bleeding. Chemo can cause a drop in platelets in the blood. This is called thrombocytopenia and it can lead to excessive bleeding and bruising.
- Increased risk of infections. Yet another way that chemo affects the blood is by lowering white blood cell counts. White blood cells are part of the immune system. Too few is called leukopenia, which can increase infection risk.
- Numbness, pain, or tingling. Nervous system side effects result from nerve damage, which can lead to these sensations in the fingers and toes. It can also cause shaking, trembling, weak muscles, and loss of balance.
- Cognitive changes. Sometimes called chemo brain, some side effects include difficulty thinking, remembering, or paying attention and staying focused on tasks.
- Sexual dysfunction and infertility. Chemotherapy can cause infertility that may be permanent. Many of the side effects also lead to a loss of interest in sex.
Managing the Side Effects of Chemotherapy
If you are going through chemotherapy, it is important to discuss potential side effects with your doctor. There are ways to manage any side effects.
For example, there are certain medications that may help relieve pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, infections, and anemia. For side effects that cannot be relieved by medication, other strategies may offer some relief.
- Fatigue is a very common side effect of chemotherapy. To increase energy levels, it is important to practice a healthy sleep routine. This means sleeping at regular night-time hours and staying active during the day. While short rests may be necessary during the day, avoid excessive daytime sleeping. Routine activity that you can tolerate can also be helpful. You can also cope with fatigue by allowing loved ones to help with chores and other activities.
- Another common side effect is a change in appetite, which can also lead to weight loss. Chemotherapy may alter your senses, making food seem less appealing. It can also cause mouth sores and difficulty swallowing. These can make eating difficult; however, a balanced diet is necessary to remain as healthy as possible. Try eating softer foods that are easier to swallow. You should also avoid foods that are too hot, spicy, salty, or acidic to avoid irritating mouth sores. Good dental care can also help maintain mouth health, making eating easier and more enjoyable.
- Fertility loss can be a very serious side effect, especially if you are young and plan to have children in the future. It is essential to talk to your doctor about fertility concerns before chemotherapy treatment. There are ways to preserve fertility, such as freezing eggs or sperm.
Complementary and Integrative Practices to Relieve Side Effects
Lifestyle changes and medications that relieve side effects are important strategies in battling the discomfort caused by chemotherapy. Other approaches can help too. Research has found that practices such as massage therapy, yoga, meditation, exercise, acupuncture, and reiki, help patients cope with the side effects of treatment.
Yoga, massage, and exercise have all been studied extensively in patients with cancer and going through treatment. Patients who engage in one or more of these report increased energy, less pain, and better overall health and quality of life than those who are inactive or do not receive massage therapy.
The Emotional Impact of Chemotherapy
The side effects of chemotherapy are not limited to the physical body. Going through chemotherapy can also take a toll on your emotional well-being. Depression, anxiety, stress, fear, and other negative emotions are not uncommon.
The physical discomfort of chemotherapy combined with the realities of living with cancer can combine to cause significant distress. Patients must also deal with their changing bodies and appearance. Most patients lose their hair during treatment, and many either lose weight or gain weight. These changes can increase feelings of distress.
To cope with the emotional side effects of chemotherapy, it helps first to relieve some of the physical side effects. When you feel better physically, you should feel better emotionally; however, some patients may want additional support.
Therapy or counseling, cancer support groups, and relying on loved ones for help and support can make a difference in a patient’s emotional well-being. This is a normal and healthy way to help your mental well-being during treatment.
Serious Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Although chemotherapy has many varied side effects, for most patients, they are not serious or life-threatening. Most side effects go away after treatment.
In some cases, a patient may experience more serious but less common side effects, requiring immediate medical attention. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience:
- A fever
- Unexplained bruising or bleeding
- Pain at the injection site
- Intense pain
- Severe chills
- Persistent diarrhea or vomiting
- Bloody stool or urine
- Swelling in the mouth, face, or throat
How Long Do Chemotherapy Side Effects Last?
The good news about chemotherapy side effects is that they usually subside when treatment ends. How long it takes to feel better or get your energy back depends on individual factors. It could be immediate or a few weeks.
In some cases, patients experience late effects that take years to resolve or never go away. These result from the damage the chemotherapy caused to organs, like the lungs, kidneys, or reproductive organs.
While chemotherapy is a useful and effective treatment for mesothelioma and other kinds of cancer, it can be difficult for patients. Some will have minimal or mild side effects, but most experience significant discomfort. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have before or during treatment.
Don’t hesitate to contact your medical team after hours if you are worried about what you are experiencing. With help from your doctors and some lifestyle and alternative strategies, you can make it through chemotherapy and get the benefits of this treatment.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.