Cancer Side Effects
Physical Side Effects
1) Chemotherapy Effects
What causes side effects?
Cancer cells tend to grow fast, and chemo drugs kill fast-growing cells. But because these drugs travel throughout the body, they can affect normal, healthy cells that are fast-growing, too. Damage to healthy tissue causes side effects. Side effects are not always as bad as you might expect, but many people worry about this part of their cancer treatment.
The normal cells most likely to be damaged by chemo are blood-forming cells in the bone marrow; hair follicles; and cells in the mouth, digestive tract, and reproductive system. Some chemo drugs can damage cells in the heart, kidneys, bladder, lungs, and nervous system. In some cases, medicines can be given with the chemo to help protect the body’s normal cells.
What should I know about side effects?
- Every person doesn’t get every side effect, and some people get few, if any.
- The severity of side effects varies greatly from person to person. Be sure to talk to your doctor and nurse about which side effects are most common with your chemo, how long they might last, how bad they might be, and when you should call the doctor’s office about them.
- Your doctor may give you medicines to prevent some side effects before they happen.
- Many people have no long-term problems from chemo. And although side effects can be unpleasant, they must be measured against the need to kill the cancer cells.
How long do side effects last?
Most side effects slowly go away after treatment ends because the healthy cells recover over time. The time it takes to get over some side effects and regain energy varies from person to person and depends on many factors, including your overall health and the drugs you were given.
Many side effects go away fairly quickly, but some may take months or even years to completely go away. Sometimes the side effects can last a lifetime, such as when chemo causes long-term damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, or reproductive organs. Certain types of chemo sometimes cause delayed effects, such as a second cancer that may show up many years later.
Patients often become discouraged about how long their treatment lasts or the side effects they have. If you feel this way, talk to your doctor. You may be able to change your medicine or treatment schedule. Your doctor or nurse may be able to suggest ways to reduce any pain and discomfort you have.
2)Radiation Therapy Effects
Radioprotective drugs Doctors have been looking for ways to reduce the side effects caused by radiation therapy, but allow the doses needed to kill cancer cells. One way to reduce side effects is by using radioprotective drugs. These are drugs that are given before radiation treatment to protect certain normal tissues in the treatment area. The one most commonly used today is amifostine. This radioprotective drug may be used in people with head and neck cancer to reduce the mouth problems caused by radiation therapy.
Radioprotective drugs are an active area of research, and at this time not all doctors agree how these drugs should be used in radiation therapy. These drugs have their own side effects, too, so be sure you understand what to look for.
What can I do to take care of myself during treatment?
You need to take special care of yourself to protect your health during radiation treatment. Your doctor or nurse will give you advice based on your treatment and the side effects you might have. Here are some other tips:
- Be sure to get plenty of rest. You may feel more tired than normal. Try to get good, restful sleep at night. Severe tiredness, often called fatigue, may last for several weeks after your treatment ends.
- Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Depending on the area of your body getting radiation (for example, the belly or pelvic area), your doctor or nurse may suggest changes in your diet. You can get more information in our booklet called Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families.
- Take care of the skin in the treatment area. If you get external radiation therapy, the skin in the treatment area may become more sensitive or look and feel sunburned. Ask your doctor or nurse before using any soaps, lotions, deodorants, medicines, perfumes, cosmetics, talcum powder, or anything else on the treated area. Some of these products may irritate sensitive skin. See the “Skin problems” section for more information.
- Do not wear tight clothes over the treatment area. This includes girdles, pantyhose, or close-fitting collars. Instead, wear loose, soft cotton clothing. Do not starch your clothes.
- Do not rub, scrub, or use adhesive tape on treated skin. If your skin must be covered or bandaged, use paper tape or other tape for sensitive skin. Try to put the tape outside the treatment area, and do not put the tape in the same place each time.
- Do not put heat or cold (such as a heating pad, heat lamp, or ice pack) on the treatment area. Talk with your doctor first. Even hot water may hurt your skin, so use only lukewarm water for washing the treated area.
- Protect the treated area from the sun. Your skin may be extra sensitive to sunlight. If possible, cover the treated skin with dark-colored clothing before going outside. Ask your doctor if you should use a lotion that contains a sunscreen. If so, use a sunscreen product with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Reapply the sunscreen often. Continue to give your skin extra protection from sunlight for at least 1 year after radiation therapy.
- Tell your doctor about all medicines you are taking before treatment. Give your doctor a full list of everything you take and how often you take it, even things like aspirin, vitamins, or herbs. Don’t forget to list those you take only when you need them, such as sleep aids, antacids, headache remedies, and antihistamines. It’s a good idea to keep a list like this with you at all times, in case of emergency, even when you aren’t getting cancer treatment.
Side effects can vary.Your doctor and nurse are the best people to talk to about your treatment, side effects, things you need to do to take care of yourself, and any other medical concerns you may have. Tell them about any changes in the way you feel and about any side effects you are having, including skin changes, tiredness (fatigue), diarrhea, or trouble eating. Be sure that you understand any home care instructions and know whom to call if you have more questions.
Side effects vary from person to person and depend on the radiation dose and the part of the body being treated. Some patients have no side effects at all, while others have quite a few. There is no way to know who might – or might not – have side effects. Your overall health can sometimes affect how your body reacts to radiation treatment and whether you have side effects.
How long do side effects last?
Radiation therapy can cause early and late side effects. Early side effects are those that happen during or shortly after treatment. They usually are gone within a few weeks after treatment ends. Late side effects are those that take months or years to develop. They are often permanent.
The most common early side effects are fatigue (feeling tired) and skin changes. Other early side effects usually are related to the area being treated, such as hair loss and mouth problems when radiation treatment is given to the head.
Most side effects go away in time. In the meantime, there are ways to reduce the discomfort they may cause. If you have bad side effects, the doctor may stop your treatments for a while, change the schedule, or change the type of treatment you are getting. Tell your doctor, nurse, or radiation therapist about any side effects you notice so they can help you with them. The information here can serve as a guide to handling some side effects, but it cannot replace talking with your doctor or nurse about what is happening to you.
People often become discouraged about how long their treatment lasts or the side effects they have. If you feel this way, talk to your doctor. If needed, your doctor should be able to suggest ways to help you feel better.
How often are nausea and vomiting in people with cancer?
About 7 or 8 out of every 10 people treated for cancer have bouts of nausea and vomiting. But many medicines work well to control nausea and vomiting. You should not suffer.
Drugs used to control these side effects are called anti-nausea/vomiting drugs. You may also hear them called anti-emetics. Every person with cancer who is getting treatments that cause nausea or vomiting can, and should, get medicines to keep this from happening.
What problems can nausea and vomiting cause?
Nausea and vomiting are 2 of the most dreaded, unpleasant side effects of cancer treatment, but they only rarely become life-threatening. Repeated vomiting can lead to dehydration, which is a lack of fluid and minerals your body needs. Dehydration can lessen the appetite,even more and if it continues, it can become a serious problem very quickly. Be sure to let your cancer team know right away if you can’t keep fluids down, if you can’t take the medicines you need, or if your vomiting lasts 24 hours or longer.
Vomiting can also cause tiredness (fatigue), trouble concentrating, slow wound healing, weight loss, and loss of appetite. It can interfere with your ability to take care of yourself and may lead to changes in your treatment plan. When nausea and vomiting are severe or long-lasting, and interfere with your normal daily activities, the outcomes are even worse.
What You need do know about nausea and vomiting?
Ask your doctor or a member of your health care team these questions:
- Is my cancer treatment likely to cause nausea and vomiting?
- Are there treatments to prevent or control my nausea and vomiting?
- How will you decide which anti-nausea/vomiting treatments I should use?
- Are there side effects to the anti-nausea/vomiting treatments you want me to use?
- When and how often should I take each medicine?
- What else can be done if the treatment does not control my nausea and vomiting?
Ask your doctor when you should call. For example, many doctors want you to call them if you are vomiting or if you can’t keep down fluids or medicines. Some doctors may ask that you weigh yourself each day to quickly spot rapid weight loss that is due to dehydration. Find out if there are other situations that may require your doctor’s help right away. And be sure you know how to reach your cancer team on weekends or at night if these problems happen.