Chemotherapy is an effective weapon against cancer with the capability either to inhibit new cell growth or destroy or shrink existing cells. But the very properties that make chemotherapy a potent enemy of cancer cells can cause side effects, since the medication will attack all rapidly dividing cells not discriminating between cancer cells and healthy ones. Healthy cells that typically divide rapidly may be found in our hair, GI tract and bone marrow.
For this reason, common side effects include fatigue, changes in blood counts, loss of appetite, digestive upsets, bodily changes such as hair loss and physical problems. Some forms of chemotherapy can adversely affect the central nervous system, increase the likelihood of infections due to bone marrow suppression, while others can cause reproduction and sexual problems.
If your doctor has prescribed chemotherapy as part of your treatment, ask what type of adverse effects or problems are associated with the drug and what can lessen the impact. Medications, specific homeopathic remedies and alternative therapies, along with a healthy eating plan and lifestyle, can all be effective.
How to Handle Chemotherapy Side Effects
Here are some suggestions for coping with specific chemotherapy-related issues:
Chemotherapy patients are often fatigued. This is due primarily because your body needs extra energy to heal from the disease. But certain side effects, medications and stress also serve to wear down the body and result in exhaustion. Here are some suggestions to increase your energy level.
- Follow a balanced diet so your body gets the nutrition it needs to function. Include protein at each meal to sustain the energy released from food while avoiding empty or non-nutritional calories. Make every bite count.
- Even when you are tired, engage in some physical activity to help relieve stress. (Always check with your doctor first.)
- Stay hydrated—especially important if you are having bouts of vomiting.
- Have your doctor check for nutrient deficiencies, such as protein, iron, B vitamins, and vitamin D, that can exacerbate your fatigue.
While nausea and vomiting are common side effects of cancer treatment that can cause dehydration, poor nutrition, and weight loss, the good news is that there are some remedies that can provide relief.
- Avoid common nausea triggers: strong odors or food aromas, stress, caffeine and smoking.
- Eat several small meals or snacks throughout the day instead of three larger ones to help prevent excess stomach acid. Add some ginger (as a drink or recipe ingredient) to your meal since it has shown some promise for nausea relief.
- Create a calm environment during mealtimes, and take your time eating so your body can properly digest the food.
- Sometimes foods served room temperature or cooler are easier on the stomach than hot meals.
If your nausea is keeping you from getting enough nutrition, contact your healthcare provider who can order anti-nausea medications. Be sure to take them as prescribed, and let your doctor know immediately if your vomiting is continuous and cannot be controlled.
Chemotherapy can affect your blood and marrow’s ability to make red blood cells, which can lead to anemia. If severe, you may need a blood transfusion or injections of erythropoiesis-stimulating agent (ESA) to boost the growth of your red blood cells. You can also try the following strategies:
- Get plenty of rest, eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids.
- Cut back on your activities and ask for help.
- Exercise a little each day for both the physical and psychological benefits.
- Take it slowly when sitting or standing position to avoid lightheadedness.
Chemotherapy can cause sores and irritations in your mouth and throat to develop, and possibly lead to infection, making good oral care a priority. Before beginning chemotherapy, have your teeth cleaned and address any dental problems. Ask your dentist for recommendations or any changes to your current oral hygiene regimen. Avoid foods that can aggravate your mouth such as crunchy or hard foods, spicy or acidic foods and foods or drinks that are high in sugar or alcohol. Avoid using toothpicks or other sharp items in your mouth as well as any form of tobacco.
Certain chemotherapy drugs may affect sexual organs and functioning in both men and women. For men, this can mean a lower sperm count, erectile dysfunction or damage to chromosomes which can cause birth defects. For women, this can result in irregular or absent menstrual periods, lower levels of hormones, ovarian failure and infertility, along with menopause-like symptoms such as hot flashes and dry vaginal tissues. Sexual feelings and attitudes may also change. Ask your doctor for help to alleviate the symptoms. If infertility is a concern, ask to be referred to a fertility expert.
When coping with side effects, it’s important to understand that, in most cases, they will gradually go away after treatment ends, when healthy cells have a chance to grow normally.
As with any side effect or concern during your cancer journey, please consult your physician right away.