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Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is an effective treatment used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors in people with mesothelioma and other types of cancer. Unfortunately this treatment also causes a number of side effects. Not every patient will experience all possible side effects and severity will depend on many factors, including the specific drugs used, the dosage, and the patient’s overall health.

There are ways to help manage and minimize side effects of chemotherapy, but all patients will experience some level of discomfort when being treated. Most of the effects will not last long, but sometimes they can become serious and potentially harmful. If you are going through chemotherapy, know what normal side effects are, understand your own limits, and don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor if you feel like you can’t handle the discomfort or pain.

Why Chemotherapy Causes Side Effects

Chemotherapy is one of the most effective ways of treating cancer, but it is also one of the types of treatment that causes the most discomfort. There are many potential side effects of undergoing chemotherapy, like nausea, fatigue, vomiting, and hair loss. The reason for so many side effects is that the drugs used are toxic and are not specific to killing cancer cells. They target and kill any fast-growing cells and are administered through the bloodstream where they can move throughout and reach all parts of the body.

The drugs used in chemotherapy damage many healthy cells as well as cancer cells, but only certain types of healthy cells are affected. These include hair follicles—which explains why hair loss is such a common side effect—mouth, digestive, and reproductive cells, and the cells in bone marrow that produce red blood cells. These are the types of healthy cells most likely to be harmed by chemotherapy drugs and the consequences take the form of many of the common side effects of this treatment. Doctors try to find a balance between administering enough of the drug to kill cancer cells, while minimizing side effects and damage to healthy cells.

Common Side Effects

There are many different potential side effects that chemotherapy can cause. Which ones any given patient will experience depend on the dose of the drugs, which chemotherapy drugs are being administered, the frequency and duration of chemotherapy sessions, and the health of the patient. Some of the most common side effects are:

  • Hair loss.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Fatigue, sometimes severe.
  • Bruising and bleeding.
  • Anemia.
  • Constipation.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Changes in appetite.
  • Changes in weight.
  • Infections.
  • Mouth sores.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Changes in weight.
  • Numbness, pain, or tingling sensation.
  • Kidney and bladder complications.
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing.
  • Infertility, potentially permanent.
  • Mood swings.
  • Sexual dysfunction.

Managing Side Effects of Chemotherapy

If you are going through chemotherapy it is important that you talk to your doctors about side effects. They can help you find ways to manage them and to get relief. There are certain medications, for instance, that may help relieve pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, infections, and anemia. For side effects that cannot be relieved by medication, there are other strategies you can use to find relief.

Fatigue is a very common side effect of chemotherapy. To find more energy, try sleeping at least eight hour per night, getting in some light exercise, eating a well-rounded and healthy diet, and taking short naps as needed. You can also cope with fatigue by letting loved ones help you get chores done that you used to be able to do on your own.

Also very common is a change in appetite, which can also lead to weight loss. Chemotherapy may alter your senses so food becomes less appealing, or cause mouth sores and difficulty swallowing. All of these can make eating more difficult, but you need to try to eat a balanced diet to remain healthy. Try eating softer foods that are easier to swallow, foods that are not too hot, spicy, salty, or acidic to avoid irritating sores in your mouth. Good dental care can also help you maintain better mouth health, which will make eating easier.

Loss of fertility can be a very serious side effect, especially if you are young and hope to have children one day. It is important to talk to your doctor about this before you start treatment. There are ways to preserve fertility, such as freezing eggs or sperm.

Alternative Practices to Relieve Side Effects

Lifestyle changes and medications that relieve side effects are important strategies in battling the discomfort and pain of chemotherapy, but there are alternatives too. Research has found that alternative practices such as massage therapy, yoga, meditation, exercise, acupuncture, and reiki, help patients with cancer cope better with the illness and 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 more energy, less pain, and better overall health and quality of life as compared to those who are inactive or do not receive massage therapy.

Emotional Impact

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 in patients. The physical discomfort of chemotherapy combined with the realities of living with cancer and facing the prospect of a shortened life expectancy combine to cause some patients to feel significant distress. There is also the reality of dealing with a changing body and appearance. Most patients lose their hair during treatment and many either lose weight or gain weight. These changes can increase feelings of depression.

To cope with the emotional side effects of chemotherapy, it helps first to try to relieve some of the physical side effects. When you feel better physically, you will start to feel better emotionally too. For some patients, though, this is not enough. Therapy or counseling, working with a support group for cancer patients, and relying on your loved ones to help and support you can all make a difference in fighting depression and anxiety.

Serious Side Effects

The most common side effects of chemotherapy are plentiful and varied, but in most patients they are not serious or life-threatening. Most will go away when treatment is finished. In some cases a patient may experience more serious, but less common side effects. Any of these may require immediate medical attention. If you experience any more serious side effects during or after treatment, contact your doctor right away: a fever of 100 or higher, unexplained bruising or bleeding, pain at the injection site, intense pains, including headaches, severe chills, diarrhea or vomiting that persists, bloody stool or urine, and swelling in the mouth, face, or throat.

While chemotherapy is a useful and often effective treatment for mesothelioma and other kinds of cancer, it is also difficult to experience. Some lucky patients will have minimal or mild side effects, but most experience significant discomfort. Talk to your doctor about any side effect that concerns you and don’t hesitate to speak up and 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.

Page Edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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