Chemotherapy side effects, and to a lesser extent, immunotherapy 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. Because these drugs also can harm healthy cells, they can cause a range of side effects. Chemotherapy side effects are not as severe as they once were, and immunotherapy side effects are typically even milder.
One of the common side effects almost every patient undergoing cancer treatment experiences is fatigue, or feeling extremely tired or worn out. Cancer-related fatigue is different than 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 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
Immunotherapy side effects
Immunotherapy helps your own immune system attack cancer cells or enhances your immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy side effects are often dependent on your health going into treatment, how advanced the cancer is, and the type and dose of therapy you’re given.
Side effects of immunotherapy often depend upon the type of treatment you receive. Side effects of immunotherapy can me mild, moderate, or severe. Notify your physician of any side effects. Most side effects can be treated with corticosteroids.
Other immunotherapy side effects may include:
- Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, aches, weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, fatigue, and headache
- Bacterial, viral, or yeast infection
- Swelling and fluid retention-related weight gain
- Heart palpitations
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 themselves cause problems. For instance, patients taking ondansetron (Zofran) to help relieve nausea may experience headache and constipation. If this happens, patients can then take acetaminophen (Tylenol) for the headache and laxatives for the constipation or switch to Phenergan or Compazine to control nausea.
Occasionally, side effects can signal serious complications. When they do, be sure to contact your care team at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers first (unless the symptom is life threatening). Because we specialize in cancer treatment, 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. Call your medical oncologist if you have:
- A fever of 100.5 F or greater
- Unexplained bruising or bleeding
- A rash or severe itching
- Swelling of the mouth or throat, or trouble swallowing
- Swelling of the neck, shoulder, arms, or legs, especially if one side is greater than the other
- Intense chills
- 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
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 tips:
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 copy 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.