Chemotherapy is the use of medicines or drugs to treat cancer. The thought of having chemotherapy frightens many people. But our experienced oncologists and staff can help you know how it works and what to expect. This can often help calm your fears and give you a better sense of control over your cancer treatment.
Potential Side Effects
Fatigue is one of the most common side effects experienced during cancer treatment. It is important to manage fatigue as it can contribute to feelings of depression, lack of appetite, or increased pain.
Will I lose my hair? This is a common question amongst patients considering cancer treatment. While some patients see this as a minor side effect, others consider it very daunting. Most cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, damage rapidly dividing cancer cells, but can also damage rapidly dividing healthy cells. Hair follicles happen to be one such normal rapidly dividing group of cells in our bodies.
Pain is one of the most common and feared symptoms of cancer or its treatment. If not adequately managed, pain can have a tremendous impact on your quality of life. It is important to remember that you should always notify your oncologist if you have pain or if it is increasing. Pain is usually your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, so do not ignore it or assume that it is a necessary part of your treatment.
Chemotherapy can reduce the bone marrow’s ability to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of your body. When there are too few red blood cells, body tissues do not get enough oxygen to do their work. This condition is called anemia. Anemia can make you feel short of breath, very weak, and tired.
Central Nervous System Problems
Chemotherapy can interfere with certain functions in your central nervous system (brain) causing tiredness, confusion, and depression. These feelings will go away once the chemotherapy dose is lowered or you finish chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy can make you more likely to develop infections. This happens because most anticancer drugs affect the bone marrow, making it harder to make white blood cells, the cells that fight many types of infections.
Blood Clotting Problems
Anticancer drugs can affect the bone marrow’s ability to make platelets, the blood cells that help stop bleeding by making your blood clot. If your blood does not have enough platelets, you may bleed or bruise more easily than usual, even without an injury.
Mouth, Gum, and Throat Problems
Good oral care is important during cancer treatment. Some anticancer drugs can cause sores in the mouth and throat, a condition called stomatitis or mucositis. Anticancer drugs also can make these tissues dry and irritated or cause them to bleed.
When chemotherapy affects the cells lining the intestine, it can cause diarrhea (watery or loose stools). If you have diarrhea that continues for more than 24 hours, or if you have pain and cramping along with the diarrhea, call your doctor. In severe cases, the doctor may prescribe a medicine to control the diarrhea. If diarrhea persists, you may need intravenous fluids to replace the water and nutrients you have lost. Often these fluids are given as an outpatient and do not require hospitalization. Do not take any over-the-counter medicines for diarrhea without asking your doctor.
Some anticancer medicines, pain medicines, and other medicines can cause constipation. It can also occur if you are less active or if your diet lacks enough fluid or fiber. If you have not had a bowel movement for more than a day or two call your doctor, he may suggest taking a laxative or stool softener. Do not take these measures without checking with your doctor, especially if your white blood cell count or platelets are low.
Nerve and Muscle Effects
Sometimes anticancer drugs can cause problems with your body’s nerves. For example, a tingling, burning, weakness, numbness or pain in the hands and/or feet. Some drugs can also affect the muscles, making them weak, tired, or sore. In many cases, these nerve and muscle side effects, though annoying, may not be serious. In other cases, nerve and muscle symptoms may be serious and need medical attention. Be sure to report any nerve or muscle symptoms to your doctor. Most of the time, these symptoms will get better; however, it may take up to a year after your treatment ends.
Effects on Skin and Nails
You may have minor skin problems while you are having chemotherapy, such as redness, rashes, itching, peeling, dryness, acne, and increased sensitivity to the sun. Certain anticancer drugs, when given intravenously, may cause the skin all along the vein to darken, especially in people who have very dark skin. The darkened areas will fade a few months after treatment ends. Your nails may also become darkened, yellow, brittle, or cracked. They also may develop vertical lines or bands.
Kidney and Bladder Effects
Some anticancer drugs can irritate the bladder or cause temporary or permanent damage to the bladder or kidneys.
Some people feel as though they have the flu for a few hours to a few days after chemotherapy. These flu-like symptoms may include muscle and joint aches, headache, tiredness, nausea, slight fever, chills, and poor appetite. This may be especially true if you are receiving chemotherapy in combination with biological therapy. An infection or the cancer itself can also cause these symptoms.
Your body may retain fluid when you are having chemotherapy. This may be due to hormonal changes from your therapy, to the drugs themselves, or to your cancer. Check with your doctor or nurse if you notice swelling or puffiness in your face, hands, feet, or abdomen.
Effects on Sexual Organs
Chemotherapy may — but does not always — affect sexual organs and functioning in both men and women. The side effects that might occur depend on the drugs used and the person’s age and general health.