Medically Reviewed by James C. H. Smith, MD
The punch in your belly from a cancer diagnosis is followed by a tidal wave of emotions and questions. How to tell your family, your friends, your boss? Then, come decisions on treatment options. It’s not an easy road to travel. Understanding what to expect can help with your decisions and your journey.
This article offers an overview of the potential side effects of the medications, chemotherapy and radiation used in your treatment. It’s a long list. Yet, remember – thanks to new developments in treatments, side effects are being reduced and some people report no side effects.
The most common side effects of treatment include:
Fatigue. Normal fatigue from work or play will fade with rest. Chemotherapy and radiation are essentially attacks on the cancer cells in your body. Fatigue in this case is normal, but requires regular naps and reserving your energy for important events and treatment days. Sleep at least 8 hours. Take naps of less than an hour. Ongoing fatigue may also be a sign of depression. Some types of treatment cause anemia – a lack of red blood cells, leaving you tired or weak.
Tell your doctor if you feel you have depression or anemia. Work fewer hours or take time off from your job. Ask friends to handle some of your tasks – buying groceries, cleaning the house.
Memory/Concentration. Described by some as “chemobrain,” difficulties with memory and clear thinking are a long-term effect of chemotherapy. In most people, it improves over time. Listen to your body and plan important activities during the time of day that you feel physically and mentally sharpest. Write things down. Keep a calendar with important information and appointments. Use your calendar or a pillbox to make sure you take medicines on schedule.
Nausea & Eating Problems. Patients may experience nausea and vomiting a few hours after treatments and it may last a few hours or up to a few days.
Eat when you’re hungry. You don’t have to wait for mealtime. Ask a friend or relative to cook something you think you can eat. Physicians can prescribe medicine to reduce the queasiness.
These problems may lead to loss of appetite, malnutrition and dehydration. If the vomiting lasts more than a day, contact your doctor. Anxiety about the treatment and possible side effects can emotionally trigger stomach upset and vomiting before treatments.
Hair & Skin Problems. Hair loss is a well-known side effect of chemotherapy and, depending on the part of the body treated, radiation therapy. In most cases, the hair grows back after treatment. But don’t color the new hair for six months after the end of treatment. Skin is very sensitive during radiation therapy. Avoid exposure to the sun, rubbing the treatment areas and applying hot or cold compresses.
Infections. Treatments can lower infection-fighting white blood cells in your body, making you particularly susceptible to colds and flu. Stay away from crowds and, unfortunately, from young children who go to day care or preschool.
Lymphedema. This is a fancy word for a build up of fluid in the body – especially in the arms and legs. It can develop years after treatment. Look for itching in the legs and toes, burning in the legs, or tightness in your shoes and bracelets.
Infertility. During radiation therapy, women may experience symptoms of menopause and men’s sperm may be affected. Although, these side effects may disappear after treatment, it can be permanent. Pregnancy should be avoided during treatment. Both chemo and radiation therapy can harm the fetus. If you want to have children after treatment, tell your doctor about it before treatment begins.
Other side effects may appear when specific parts of the body – such as the lung, brain or pelvis are treated.
“One article can’t provide details on all the side effects, says McLeod Oncologist James Smith, MD. “I’d suggest patients take this list and discuss it with your cancer specialists for their insight. Pay attention to your body. Contact your doctor if any type of problem continues.”
Ask a Cancer Specialist a question.
Sources: McLeod Health, American Cancer Society, National Institutes of Health, About.com, National Cancer Institute