Chemotherapy side effects can have a major impact on the quality of your life if you are a cancer patient. Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to battle cancer. However, because these drugs also can harm healthy cells, they can cause a range of side effects. Advances in chemotherapy have reduced the severity of chemotherapy side effects for many patients. As with any medical treatment, the side effects of chemotherapy vary from patient to patient.
One of the most common side effects of almost every patient undergoing cancer treatment experiences is fatigue, or feeling extremely tired or worn out. Cancer-related fatigue is different from the fatigue people feel when they are healthy. It tends to be more intense and might not be alleviated with rest. It can come on slowly throughout treatment or all at once and may be exacerbated by other side effects, such as anemia and pain. The good news is that cancer treatment-related fatigue usually resolves within a few weeks after your last cancer treatment.
Other chemotherapy side effects vary by cancer type and individual. Not everyone will experience each side effect, and some people will notice only minor changes. Side effects can range widely from person to person, even if you have the same treatment plan, so try not to spend too much time and energy worrying about what might happen.
Chemotherapy Side Effects
Chemotherapy side effects tend to be generalized since the drugs used to kill cancer cells travel through the entire body to get to the affected site. When undergoing chemotherapy, you might experience:
- Chemo brain, which can include feeling forgetful or having trouble concentrating
- Hair loss
- Bruising or bleeding easily
- Bacterial, viral, or yeast infections
- Anemia, or low red blood cell count
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Mouth, tongue, and throat problems, such as dry mouth, sores, and difficulty swallowing
- Nerve and muscle problems, including numbness, tingling, and weakness
- Skin and nail changes, such as dry skin and cracked nails and cuticles
- Urinary changes, including the color and smell of urine
- Weight loss
- Memory and concentration problems
- Mood changes
- Changes in libido and sexual function
- Fertility problems
- Heart damage
Managing chemotherapy side effects
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle throughout cancer treatment may help prevent some chemotherapy side effects from occurring and reduce the severity of others.
Follow these six tips to help manage your chemotherapy side effects:
- Rest up. Fighting off cancer is exhausting work. Try to get plenty of rest, eliminate unnecessary tasks from your to-do list, and ask for help when you need it.
- Be active when possible. While rest is important, so too is physical activity. Staying physically active throughout cancer treatment can increase energy, improve blood flow, reduce your risk of depression, and keep muscles from becoming weak. Talk to your doctor about what type of activity is best for you during treatment.
- Disclose any medications you’re taking. Certain drugs can negatively interact with cancer treatment and exacerbate chemotherapy side effects. Tell your care team about any medications you take — even if only sporadically — including any prescription medicines, aspirin, vitamins, supplements, sleep aids, antacids, and antihistamines.
- Be gentle on your skin. If you have dry or irritated skin from an immunotherapy side effect, you’ll want to take extra special care during treatment. Try a warm bath with a bit of baby oil and moisturize with alcohol- and fragrance-free lotion twice a day. Do not scrub skin when bathing, and always pat skin to dry rather than rubbing with a towel. Protect your skin from hot and cold temperatures as well as the sun, and drink plenty of water year-round.
- Consider scalp cooling. Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers offers the hair-preserving Paxman Scalp Cooling System for patients receiving chemotherapy. The system works by cooling the scalp, which causes blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow. When that happens during chemotherapy, it means less of the chemotherapy drug reaches the hair follicles, which can make them less vulnerable to damage. Paxman scalp cooling is offered at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers locations in Aurora, Littleton, Denver-Rose, Lone Tree-Sky Ridge, Swedish in Englewood, Colorado Springs, Boulder, and Lakewood.
- Acknowledge your feelings. Facing cancer and enduring treatment is not only tough on the body, but it’s tough on the mind as well. It’s common to feel anxious, angry, scared, sad, alone, or depressed at some point during treatment. Connecting with others in similar situations, whether in a support group or online, can help. Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers offers many resources to help you cope with the emotional side of cancer treatment including support groups, educational events, and a supportive care team of dedicated licensed clinical oncology social workers. Be sure to talk to your care team if any of your emotions become unmanageable.
When To Call Your Doctor
Advances in treatment have reduced the severity of chemotherapy side effects over the years. New medications are also available to help mitigate chemotherapy and immunotherapy side effects. In some cases, the medications used to help control chemotherapy side effects can cause problems.
Occasionally, side effects can signal serious complications. When they do, be sure to contact your care team at RMCC first (unless the symptom is life-threatening). We specialize in cancer treatment, and our board-certified medical oncologists and specially trained nurses are uniquely equipped to help evaluate what is causing your side effects and recommend intervention if necessary.
If you are a patient and are experiencing worsening symptoms from your treatment, such as those listed below, our medical professionals are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help. We can assess signs and symptoms, schedule you for an in-office, same or next day appointment and help you avoid a trip to Urgent Care, ER or unplanned hospitalization. In the event of a life-threatening emergency always call 911. Call your medical oncologist if you have:
- A fever of 100.4 F or greater
- Unexplained bruising or bleeding
- A rash or severe itching
- Swelling of the mouth or throat, mouth sores, or trouble swallowing
- Swelling of the neck, shoulder, arms, or legs, especially if one side is greater than the other
- Intense chills
- Unmanaged pain or soreness at the chemo injection site or catheter site
- Unusual pain, including intense headaches
- Difficulty breathing (Call 911)
- Persistent diarrhea or vomiting
- Blood in the stool or urine
- Severe fatigue
- Burning with urination, frequency, urgency, lower back pain (UTI)
- Productive cough with green, yellow, red, brown sputum
- Unmanaged diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting
- Dizziness with changing position or lightheadedness