Chemotherapy side effects are well known among the public: the potential loss of hair due to cancer side effects is often portrayed in films and television. What these shows rarely show is how to deal with chemotherapy and radiation side effects. Here’s some advice to make cancer treatment just a little easier.
Nausea and Vomiting
Common chemo and radiation side effects may be nausea and vomiting. These side effects are often treated with anti-nausea medication and steroids. Below are additional interventions to help decrease the nausea and vomiting:
- Drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated
- Eating small amounts before you get too hungry
- Avoiding high fat, heavy, greasy food
- Eating dry crackers, cereal, or toast for breakfast
- Avoiding strong odors
- Not lying flat for two hours after eating
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
If you experience nausea and vomiting, avoid eating your favorite foods. They won’t remain favorites for long if they are associated with chemotherapy side effects.
Hair Loss and Scalp Sensitivity
Hair loss is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. Chemo drugs target fast-growing cancer cells. Unfortunately, hair follicles grow rapidly as well, and suffer damage during the course of treatment. To cope with hair loss and scalp sensitivity, the following interventions are recommended:
- Using soft brushes to reduce scalp discomfort
- Wearing soft scarves, caps, or hairpieces to cover hair loss
- Cutting your hair in a short style before treatment: short hair looks thicker and makes hair loss less noticeable
- Buying a wig before treatment so the wig shop can match your hair color and texture
- Checking with your health insurance to see if they cover wigs
Remember, chemotherapy side effects diminish after treatment. Less than 2% of patients have difficulty growing his/her hair back once the treatment ends.
Nerve Damage (Neuropathy)
One of the more serious side effects from chemo and radiation is neuropathy (nerve damage) and it can develop during or after treatment. In some cases, it can develop years after chemo or radiation therapy ended. Usually, it is focused in the fingers and toes and may cause numbness, “pins and needles,” muscle weakness, clumsiness, and problems with balance. If you experience any of these side effects, call the oncologist immediately.
Medical treatments for neuropathy include: anticonvulsants, antidepressants (which affect chemical signals related to neuropathy), topic ointments, and anesthetic patches. Below are additional interventions that may be used:
- Ask for physical therapy to increase balance and strength
- Use occupational therapy to maintain fine motor skills
- Engage in low-impact exercise (swimming, walking, or biking)
- Try complementary therapies (acupuncture, relaxation techniques)
- Protect your hands and feet around sharp objects
- Avoid walking on uneven surfaces
Pain is perhaps the most anxiety-inducing of all cancer side effects and may be caused by the cancer itself or chemotherapy. The oncologist may prescribe medication or pain-relief patches for you. Other pain-controlling strategies include:
- Relaxation and mind-body techniques
- Massage therapy
- Warm baths or warm washcloths (avoid areas exposed to radiation)
- Ice and cold packs
- Focusing on pleasurable activities
Chemotherapy can reduce red blood cells, causing anemia. Anemia typically presents with symptoms of fatigue, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath. If you experience any of these systems, notify the oncologist. Anemia can be treated by:
- Eating foods high in iron (red meat, dried apricots, almonds, and beans)
- Increasing folic acid intake by eating broccoli, asparagus, spinach and lima beans)
- Asking your oncologist about iron or folic acid supplements
- Blood transfusions
Increased Risk of Infection
Chemotherapy side effects may include a drop in the white blood cell count, making you more susceptible to infection. To reduce the risk of infection, the following steps should be incorporated into your daily routine:
- Practice frequent hand-washing
- Avoid people who are sick
- Eat a healthy diet
- Contact the oncologist if a fever or any sign/symptoms of infection develop (signs and symptoms may include increased pain, redness, swelling, drainage, warmness at a surgical or port site)
90% of cancer patients experience mild to severe fatigue, which often results from common chemotherapy side effects such as anemia. You can help overcome fatigue through the following interventions:
- Light exercise (walking, tai chi, yoga)
- Proper eating habits
- Maintaining a regular sleep schedule
- Asking the oncologist if fatigue is due to anemia or low thyroid function.
Fear and Anxiety
It’s perfectly normal to be concerned about treatment outcomes, so fear and anxiety are common cancer side effects. If these are not addressed, these feelings can develop into clinical depression. For assistance with this, you can seek out support groups or share feelings with a friend, family member, spiritual leader, and/or counselor. If you believe you are experiencing clinical depression, please talk with the oncologist right away so he/she can prescribe the necessary interventions to help address these feelings in order to help you better cope with the current condition and treatment plan.
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