How To Manage Chemotherapy Side Effects?

Chemotherapy is one of the most effective cancer treatments. However, like any other treatment, it can cause certain side effects. The severity of your symptoms relies on the type of cancer, location, medications and their dose, and your general health. Read this article further and get to know how you can prevent or alleviate some of the common chemotherapy side effects. 

What Are The Common Side Effects Of Chemotherapy?

Following are some of the most common chemotherapy side effects and their solutions:

Nausea and vomiting

Chemotherapy can lead to nausea and vomiting. The severity of the length of these side effects may vary from person-to-person. The type and dosage of the medication you’re receiving also plays an important role. Your doctor may recommend an anti-nausea medication to relieve your system. Taking an anti-nausea medication as per the instructions can actually help prevent or lessen the severity of your symptoms. 

Solution: 

  • Before chemotherapy, eat a light meal.
  • Take a small nap or rest for a couple of hours.
  • If the smell of foods triggers your nausea symptoms, avoid smelling foods such as onion, cabbage, tuna, etc. If the food is kept covered for a long time before serving, remove the lid of the silverware before, thus allowing strong aromas to disappear soon. 
  • Take anti-nausea medication as recommended by your doctor.
  • Drink plenty of fluids such as tonic water, fruit juices, broth, etc., to prevent dehydration. 
  • Eat certain dry foods such as crackers or toast after getting up in the morning and prevent nausea. 
  • Relaxation techniques and hypnosis can also help. In case you want to do any of these, kindly contact your doctor.

Fatigue

Fatigue and lethargy are among the most common side effects of chemotherapy. The main cause of these symptoms is unknown. However, researchers believe that it can be caused due to the disease, chemotherapy, pain, stress, poor appetite, lack of sleep, low blood counts, or any other factors. Not everyone experiences the same level of tiredness from chemotherapy. Remember, the fatigue rooted from chemotherapy is unlikely to recover by rest only. 

Solution:

  • Schedule your day so that you have adequate time to rest. 
  • Take multiple short naps a day, rather than one long rest or sleep.
  • If possible, you can take brief walks or engage in light physical activities. This can help enhance your mood and make your feel more energetic. 
  • Do simpler versions of those activities that you enjoy doing the most. 
  • If you are unable to perform your daily chores, ask for help. Kindly save your energy for things or activities you enjoy. 
  • Maintain records of how you feel with each passing day and let your doctor know how your fatigue changes over time.

Low blood counts

Cancer treatments make you more prone to infections. This occurs primarily because most anti-cancer medications impact your bone marrow, making it challenging to make WBCs (White Blood Cells), the cells that help combat infections. While you‘re receiving chemotherapy, your doctor will often check your blood cells count. If your white blood cell count is low, your doctor can prescribe certain medications called colony-stimulating factors. It will speed up your recovery process while reducing the length of time for which the blood cell count is extremely low. 

Solution:

  • Cancer treatments usually impair your immune system, so please stay away from people who are ill. 
  • Wash your hands frequently all through the day, especially before having a meal, touching pets, and using bathrooms. 
  • Avoid visiting crowded places. If you wish to go to a mall or a restaurant, choose that time of the day when it’s least likely to be busy. 
  • Avoiding trimming or cutting the cuticles of your nails.
  • Be cautious while using scissors, knives, or other sharp tools. 
  • Prefer using an electric trimmer rather than a razor to prevent cuts or breaks on your skin.
  • Avoid coming into contact with your pet’s litter box, fish tanks, or birdcages. 
  • Take a warm shower or sponge bath every day and pat your skin dry using a light touch. 
  • Avoid standing water.
  • Avoid eating raw eggs, meat, or seafood.
  • Wear protective gloves to minimize the risk of injuries and infections. 
  • Stay away from people who have or recently recovered from chickenpox, measles, or any other contagious diseases. 

Mouth and throat sores

While on chemotherapy, you should take good care of your math. The treatment can impair the cells within the mouth and throat, causing painful sores in those areas. This condition is called mucositis. The mouth and throat sores occur within the initial 14 days of chemotherapy and can get infected too. Mouth sores generally recover on their own after the treatment ends. 

Solution:

  • Rinse your mouth with a lukewarm saltwater solution every three hours a day. 
  • Avoid hot and spicy foods altogether.
  • Incorporate those foods in your diet, which are cool, non-acidic, gift, and non-spicy. Grinding foods in a mixer or blender can make it easier for you to eat if your mouth feels irritated. 
  • Don’t wear dentures if you have mouth sores. 
  • Avoid using mouthwashes with high alcohol content. You can consult your doctor to get the appropriate one prescribed.
  • Brush your teeth using a soft toothbrush after every meal and before bedtime. 

Chemo brain

Chemo brain refers to a sort of mental fog that impacts your overall cognitive function. Doctors usually refer to this condition as cognitive changes or cognitive dysfunction.

Solution:

  • Eat well
  • Exercise more
  • Get enough sleep
  • Concentrate on one thing at a time
  • Maintain a to-do list to remember the things to do each day.
  • Keep your brain focused and active. Attend lectures, solve analytical problems, or do word puzzles. 

Hair loss

Some, but not all, chemotherapy treatments lead to hair loss. In some cases, the treatment can impact hair on all body, including eyelashes, eyebrows, and pubic hair. You might all or some of your hair. It may vary, but hair loss generally starts 2 – 3 weeks after your first treatment, and within a week, you may lose all your hair.  You may need to buy a wig or cap in case all your hair falls out. 

Solution:

  • After chemotherapy, use soft-bristle brushes to comb your hair to prevent breakage. 
  • Cut short your hair to make them look more voluminous.
  • Wear a scarf or hat in winter. While in summers, don’t forget to wear sunscreen to protect your scalp. 
  • If you plan to use a wig, shop for it before you start losing your hair. That way, you can match the color and style of the wig more closely to your hair. 
  • You may feel your scalp has become dry or tender. Use a mild moisturizing shampoo and conditioner to wash your hair, and apply gentle moisturizer afterward. 

In most cases, hair comes after 2 – 3 months after your last treatment, but it may be different for different persons. The color or feel of your hair may change temporarily or permanently.

Also Read: Ever Heard Of Cancer Of The Penis?

Appetite loss

The next chemotherapy side effects in the list are appetite loss. You may eat less than usual, feel fuller after eating a small amount, or don’t feel hungry at all. If the problem persists, you may lose weight drastically or develop certain nutrient deficiencies later. You may also lose muscle mass. All these consequences can slow down your recovery process. 

Solution:

  • Drink plenty of fluids; it can be beneficial if you have less of an appetite. Loss of fluids can lead to a dangerous condition called dehydration. You’ll feel week, dizzy, or have dark yellow urine if you are not drinking enough fluids. 
  • Be physically active as it can increase your appetite. Taking a brief walk each day can help.
  • Choose healthy and nutritious food. Eat smaller portions multiple times a day, rather than three large meals, even if you aren’t hungry. You’ll need to have more nutrient-dense foods that are rich in protein and calories to manage your appetite loss. 

Diarrhea

Some chemotherapy treatments may cause loose or watery bowel movements. However, there are many ways to manage diarrhea. Make sure to treat your diarrhea as early as possible, before it leads to dehydration (caused by loss of fluids). 

Solution:

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals, and choose the foods that are easily digestible. These include rice, bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, applesauce, etc. 
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, fat, fiber, dairy products, spicy foods, orange juice, and prune juice. 
  • Drink water and other fluids to minimize the risk of dehydration. People with severe dehydration may require to receive fluids intravenously. 

If your diarrhea doesn’t recover even after following these measures, you should seek medical assistance. Based on your symptoms, your doctor may:

  • Check your electrolytes levels and provide you with IV fluids. 
  • Change or alter the dose of your diarrhea medications.
  • Change the schedule or dosage of your chemotherapy. 
  • Check if any underlying infection is responsible for the cause of your symptom. 

In some cases, diarrhea results from improper functioning of the pancreas. It generally occurs in people with pancreas cancer. In such cases, pancreas enzyme replacement could help.

Constipation

You may have constipation as a consequence of chemotherapy, anti-nausea medications, pain medications,  or changes in your eating pattern or activity. Constipation is a condition that makes bowel movements less frequent or difficult. It’s essential to treat your constipation properly and in time, or it may damage your intestines or rectum. It may also lead to dehydration, block your bowel, or decelerate the absorption of your medication. If a tumor or scar tissue is causing constipation, your doctor may need to conduct further tests and treatment.  

Solution:

  • Drink more fluids.
  • Be more physically active.
  • Ask your doctor if changing or stopping any medication can help.
  • Include more fiber-rich foods in your diet or rely on a dietary supplement to fulfill your health requirements. However, if you have a tumor or scar tissue, kindly stick to a low-fiber diet because fiber may choke up narrower areas of the bowel. 
  • Use an enema, laxative, or rectal suppository. Make sure to consult your healthcare specialist before using any of these to prevent the risk of complications. 

Taste changes

Some types of chemotherapy can lead to taste changes. Ask your doctor how to deal with it.

Solution:

  • Use plastic utensils in case your food tastes metallic. 
  • Use a sweet marinade to bring exciting flavors to your food.
  • If your favorite foods taste different, consider avoiding them altogether to prevent developing a distaste for them. 
  • Red meat can taste a little different for you. If so, try dairy products, mild-flavored fish, or poultry. 

Pain or nerve changes

Certain drugs used in chemotherapy may cause changes in your nervous system, which can either be temporary or permanent. Other changes in the body may cause you to develop pain as well. If you expect any of these changes, kindly talk to your doctor immediately. 

In most cases, pain may recover once the treatment ends. However, nerve damage may worsen with each dose. 

Solution:

  • Stopping the medication leading to nerve damage can be helpful. However, it can take a couple of months or years for the nerve damage to improve or go away. In some cases, it never recovers completely. 
  • For relieving pain, you must consult your doctor to determine what’s causing your pain. Your doctor may prescribe some pain-relievers or consider adjusting the dose of your chemothera[py to see if it helps. 

Fertility changes

Sometimes, chemotherapy can impact your fertility. 

Males

Chemotherapy medications may reduce your sperm count and impair your ability to move. These changes can lead to infertility, which might be temporary or permanent. You may be unable to father a child, but you can still enjoy satisfying sexual intercourse. Other chemotherapy side effects include problems in getting and maintaining erections (erectile dysfunction) and changes in chromosomes, which may lead to congenital defects. 

Females

In women, chemotherapy medications may impact the ovaries and reduce the amount of hormone they produce. While having chemotherapy, some women may have irregular periods or don’t have them at all. Such changes can be temporary or permanent. 

Damage caused in ovaries may lead to infertility. Whether you will have infertility depends upon several factors, including your age, type of the drug, and the dosage is given. 

Solution:

  • Use a birth control method with your partner. Ask your doctor for how long you should use birth control. 
  • Before starting chemotherapy, men should consider sperm banking, which is a procedure that banks or freezes your sperm for future use. 
  • Use a condom for the initial 48 hours after each dose of chemotherapy.  
  • Ask your doctor if chemotherapy will affect your ability to father a child. If yes, will it be temporary or permanent? 

Changes in sexuality and reproduction

Chemotherapy can affect your sexual function. Changes may differ depending upon whether you are a man or a woman, and the type of chemotherapy you’re receiving.

Males

Men may have trouble getting or maintaining erections or prevent you from having an orgasm. They may be too stressed, tired, or less interested in sex. If you have any of these symptoms, kindly talk to your doctor. 

Females

Some women may have menopause symptoms such as feeling irritable, vaginal dryness, hot flashes, etc. Other chemotherapy side effects include bladder or vaginal infections, itching, discharge, being stressed, fatigued, or less interested in sex. Consult your healthcare specialist if you are concerned about any of these symptoms.

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Janet Fudge

Janet Fudge writes on general health topics for CheapMedicineShop.com. She holds a post-graduate diploma in Public Health with a major in epidemiology. During the outbreak of COVID-19, Janet actively volunteered in vaccination drives throughout the state of Iowa. She lives in Iowa with her husband and two children.