When you’ve been told you have cancer, knowing you have to have treatment can be almost as scary as the diagnosis itself. Fortunately, cancer treatments have come a long way in terms of reducing and managing their side effects.
Why it happens
Radiation treatment and chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs) cause side effects for the same reason that they fight cancer: because they’re strong enough to destroy certain types of cells in the body. This means that while drugs and radiation are killing cancer cells, they may also knock out other cells that are reproducing at the time of treatment.
One example is your hair follicles. Because follicles are constantly growing hair, some cancer treatments kill them, which is why some patients experience hair loss. Other cells that may be affected include those in your intestines and some types of blood cells. When these are knocked out, the result can be nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue.
What to expect
Different treatments and combinations of treatment can cause different side effects, but some common ones are nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, altered taste, diarrhea and fatigue. Some breast cancer treatments can also cause hot flashes and other symptoms associated with menopause.
All these effects can range from mild to severe, depending on the individual. Factors such as age and overall health can influence how severe a side effect may be, but in general, the experience of side effects varies widely among cancer patients.
Since most cancer treatments are given for only a short time, many of their side effects are time-limited. For example, nausea and diarrhea almost always go away once the treatments are finished. A few side effects, such as numbness in the feet, may be permanent.
Your doctor can tell you which side effects you can expect from your individual therapy. Or, if you’re choosing your treatment based on which side effects you can tolerate, your doctor can help you compare the side effects of different kinds of treatment.
What you can do about it
Some of the side effects of cancer treatment can be prevented or minimized with other medications and changes in daily habits. Support groups (in person or online) can be a good source of information and tips, and your doctor can advise you about trustworthy websites. Some pharmacists also specialize in helping cancer patients manage their side effects.
Here are some general tips to start with:
- Drinking water throughout the day can help to minimize possible side effects ranging from nausea to urinary problems. Sucking on ice chips can help supplement your water intake.
- It’s important to prevent or minimize nausea whenever possible in order to keep up your appetite, your weight and your strength. Anti-nausea medication can help, as can choosing foods carefully, eating smaller meals, brushing your teeth often, and rinsing your mouth with club soda before and after eating. Don’t lie down right after eating.
- Special creams and lotions are available if you are experiencing skin sensitivity, dryness or irritation.
- If mouth sores are a problem, special solutions containing antacids and antihistamines can help.
You don’t need to suffer from side effects, so always tell your doctor if you’re experiencing them. Cancer treatment and side effect management have both come a long way, so there’s a good chance that there’s a way to reduce your side effects and improve your day-to-day life.