What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a type of medical treatment that is to manage cancer. It contains chemicals that target cells that divide rapidly. The idea behind this is that cancer cells divide at a fast rate, often faster than the average rate of multiplication of the cells in the body. Chemotherapy works by reducing the size of the cancerous growth, and the likelihood of it spreading all over the body.
When a person is diagnosed with cancer, the form of treatment given will depend on the type of cancer, the stage of the tumour, and the patient’s wishes. So, if you have been told that you have cancer, and will be receiving chemotherapy as part of your treatment, you need to be aware of the side effects and how to live with them.
Why does it have side effects?
Like most drugs, chemotherapy is not free from side effects. Most of the side effects are due to the way chemotherapy works in stopping the spread of cancer. The chemicals target cells that divide rapidly which usually turn out to be cancer cells. However, other normal cells of the body are inadvertently affected as well. This is because cells in these parts tend to divide rapidly as well. Some of the common areas affected include cells in the digestive tract, nose, blood, and hair.
The side effects are many, and it often depends on the type of chemotherapy you are taking. Your doctor will usually combine your medications in such a way to ensure that you get the best out of the chemotherapy with few side effects. In essence, chemotherapy is given at a dose that is high enough to kill the cancer cells, but low enough to be effective without overwhelming your system.
What are the side effects?
There are various side effects, and more often than not, these side effects go away after you have completed your treatment. It can take weeks to months, and sometimes even years, and these are called late effects. Some of the common side effects will be explored below, along with how you can manage them.
- Nausea & Vomiting
One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is nausea and vomiting. It can be an uncomfortable event, and you may find yourself unable to keep food down or drink anything if it is not well managed. Your doctor can prescribe a type of medicine called anti-emetic that helps in reducing or even eliminating nausea and vomiting before, during and after administering the chemotherapy. Also, on your part, you should avoid food with strong smells as they can trigger nausea. Sweet, greasy food should be avoided as well for the same reason.
Instead of eating three large meals, you can break your meals into smaller bits to reduce your chances of vomiting. A large variety of drinks like tea and apple juice are helpful as well. Crackers as well are effective in stopping nausea in some people.
Of course, you should not lie down immediately after a meal. Instead, you should keep your head up.
- Hair loss
Another well-known side effect of chemotherapy is hair loss. Pop culture has made it one of the most known side effects of chemotherapy. However, contrary to popular opinion, not all chemotherapy treatments will lead to hair loss.
Still, if you happen to be taking a chemotherapy drug that can cause hair loss, you need to take precautions. This includes using hair combs with a wide-tooth to comb your hair to reduce the strain combing places on your hair. Also, avoid hairstyles that involve the use of chemicals, or pull too much on your hair. Chemotherapy can cause thinning of your hair, making it fall off easily. Your hair may become more dry than usual, and you can use moisturizers and conditioners to prevent this.
You need to get a wig before you lose your hair totally, so you can get one that closely matches your hair. Also, make use of sunscreen and scarves to protect your scalp from the sun.
Most people grow their hair back after a few months, so don’t worry, your hair will grow back.
A lot of people come down with fatigue. This fatigue hardly lets up after resting, and it can make it difficult for you to carry out your regular activities. One way around this is by breaking up your period of rest into smaller bits so that you can rest during the day. You may no longer have the same level of endurance you used to have, so you should not pile up your rest to the end of the day.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends when you need it.
Despite how tired you may be feeling, it is beneficial for you to do some light exercise, for instance, take a walk. You may find yourself feeling better afterwards.
If you find yourself feeling more tired than usual, you should mention it to your doctor.
- Increase in infections & anaemia
Blood cells are often affected by chemotherapy, and this can lead to a reduction in the level of white blood cells. These are cells that help you fight infections, and a drop in their levels will make you more vulnerable to diseases.
To protect yourself, ensure that you wash your hands regularly, do not eat raw food, avoid touching your face and eyes with your hands, and stay away from sick people, especially those with infectious diseases. Also, inform your doctor whenever you feel ill so that the illness can be treated promptly.
Red blood cells are also affected by chemotherapy, and this can lead to low blood levels also known as anaemia. Anaemia can worsen chemotherapy-induced fatigue, as well as cause fainting spells, rapid beating of your heart, and dizziness. Inform your doctor whenever you feel any of these symptoms.
- Memory loss
You may find yourself forgetting things more during chemotherapy. This is also called, ‘chemo brain’, and it is caused by the mental fog some people develop while receiving chemo.
Keeping a daily planner, and getting adequate rest are a few ways you can counteract and manage this side effect.
- Changes in Sexuality & Fertility
Chemo can alter your sexual drive, making you less interested in sex, causing vaginal dryness, hot flashes, and inability to maintain an erection.
It may also affect your ability to have children. Before commencing chemotherapy, you should have a conversation with your doctor about this so you can decide on how best to tackle this challenge.
- Diarrhoea & Constipation
It is not uncommon for you to develop diarrhoea while on chemo. Chemotherapy tends to irritate the gastrointestinal tract and make you pass loose stools.
One way to reduce this is by taking less fibre in your diet. Fibre helps to make your stool softer, and you may need to avoid eating meals that are rich in fibre while on chemo.
On the other hand, constipation may come about due to the analgesics and anti-emetics you are taking. These drugs tend to cause constipation, and you can manage this by increasing the fibre content of your diet, or with laxatives.
As always, it is best to keep your doctor informed of what you are feeling so that you can get proper treatment.
Some of your nerves may be affected in the course of treatment. This can manifest as tingling sensations in your hands and feet. Inform your doctor once you notice this so it can be managed appropriately.
- Change in Taste & Mouth Care
Food may taste different to you while you are receiving treatment. Sometimes, your meals may taste metallic, and you can reduce this by using plastic utensils to eat. You should also avoid your favourite meal during this time to avoid losing your love for it.
Mouth sores are also more frequent, and sucking on ice chips before and after chemotherapy helps to reduce the incidence.
You should brush up to 4 times a day, morning and night, and after meals. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to avoid injuring your gum as it is more sensitive during this period.