Chemotherapy involves using drugs to attack cancer cells. Chemo is considered a “systemic” therapy, meaning it affects the entire body. The drugs used can also damage healthy cells that are unrelated to the type of cancer being treated.
Perhaps one of the most visible and well-known side effects of chemotherapy is hair loss. Most chemo drugs are designed to attack rapidly growing cells–behavior typical of most cancers. Hair follicles are some of the fastest growing cells in the body and are therefore often victims of chemotherapy’s active agents.
Other common side effects of chemo include nausea, mouth sores, fatigue, anemia (low oxygen-carrying red blood cell count), neutropenia (low infection-fighting white blood cell count), and thrombocytopenia (low blood-clotting agent platelet count). Some of these side effects can be serious enough to delay treatment.
Chemotherapy can differ significantly depending on the type of cancer being treated, the severity of the patient’s condition, and the patient’s overall health. Every patient reacts differently to chemo and side effects can vary dramatically. Doctors and researchers are finding new ways to reduce and even prevent some common side effects.
One way to manage side effects of chemotherapy is to document them. Keeping notes of what side effects you experience, the severity of them, how long they last, what they prevent you from doing, and other details can help your doctor and other caregivers better understand your reaction to the medication and how to lessen the negative reactions.
To deal with nausea, cancer experts recommend eating foods that are low in odor, mild in taste, and low in sugar (especially in the morning). Avoid fatty, greasy, spicy, and overly sweet foods. It is also important to make sure all of the food that you eat is fresh and clean. Check expiration dates and avoid any food that may be compromised. Yogurt is recommended to boost white blood cell production. Liver and red meats boost iron to fight anemia, as do dark leafy greens. Frequently sipping water and other clear liquids can reduce the risk of mouth sores.
Fatigue is a serious problem for at least 70 percent of cancer patients, according to the National Cancer Institute. Often, chemotherapy patients find that their fatigue is not reduced by resting, and this can interfere with daily activities and even strain relationships. Believe it or not, doctors recommend exercising to fight fatigue. This is a tall order for people who struggle with motivation to exercise in the best of times.
There also some ways to reduce hair loss. Using mild shampoos, reducing the heat or stopping the use of blow dryers, avoiding chemical processes on your hair, and stopping the use of brush rollers and curling irons can all reduce the risk or pace of hair loss.
Staying active is also known to improve overall health and reduce some of the less obvious side effects of chemotherapy such as loneliness and depression. Staying in touch with family and friends, joining support groups, and staying as physically active as possible can all improve your mood, which can also boost your immune system and lead to lower physical side effects and faster healing. Staying socially active when fatigued can be facilitated by using the telephone, video calling, social networks, email, and online support groups.
It is important to avoid isolation when battling any illness or condition. Reaching out to others can be difficult, especially when dealing with serious conditions that people might not know how to talk about. It is unfortunate that it is often up to the patient, the person suffering, to help others feel comfortable, but it is sometimes necessary.