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The Possible Side Effects of Chemotherapy, and How to Manage Them

For individuals diagnosed with cancer, oncologists may recommend chemotherapy, a type of treatment that uses strong chemicals to target rapidly spreading cancer cells.

The efficacy of chemotherapy depends on the person’s unique health, including the type and stage of cancer they are fighting. Chemotherapy may also be combined with other types of cancer treatment, such as radiation or surgery, depending on the cancer case. But everyone undergoing this cancer treatment needs to be prepared for the potential side effects involved so that they can take steps to help minimize them, health experts say. These side effects may be mild or lead to serious health issues.

Chemotherapy side effects

According to the American Cancer Society, side effects of chemotherapy may include:

  • Skin changes, such as altered pigmentation, dryness, or flakiness
  • Changes to nails, including darkness, cracking, and sensitive cuticles
  • Digestive problems, such as diarrhea, appetite changes, and constipation
  • Hair loss, which usually begins two to four weeks following treatment, and may happen en masse, in clumps, or more gradually
  • Fatigue
  • Infection
  • Impeded sexual function, such as lower libido as well as reduced fertility
  • Weight changes
  • Altered mood and “chemo brain,” which can hinder focus and concentration
  • Sores in the mouth and trouble swallowing
  • Easy bruising and bleeding, as well as anemia
  • Sleeping trouble
  • Nerve, kidney, and heart damage

Why chemotherapy causes side effects

Chemotherapy is not a targeted treatment. That is, the chemicals involved in this approach kill both insidious cancer cells as well as healthy cells in the body. The latter aspect of this treatment has the potential to cause the aforementioned side effects. (That said, the ACS notes that some people may experience few, if any, side effects while undergoing chemo.)

Chemo is most likely to damage hair follicles; cells in the digestive and reproductive systems, as well as in your mouth; and cells that form blood in your bone marrow. Cells in other parts of the body, such as the heart, kidneys, lungs, bladder, and nervous system may also be affected, according to the ACS.

Anyone undergoing chemo can consult their cancer care team to ask about the potential type, severity, and length of side effects they may experience.

How to minimize and cope with potential side effects

Doctors try not to prescribe drugs that cause the same side effects, and they may offer the option of receiving additional drugs to reduce chemo side effects. Certain over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and supplements have the potential to interact with chemo drugs or potentially exacerbate side effects, so individuals undergoing chemo need to discuss these with their care team before taking them.

Buying certain products, as well as making diet and lifestyle changes, can also help people reduce chemo side effects.

For example, the Cleveland Clinic notes that anti-nausea medication and staying hydrated (as well as eating foods with fiber) can help relieve gastrointestinal issues like vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. To manage side effects that affect the mouth, warm-water rinses and artificial saliva may help. Separately, the “Look Good Feel Better” program, which the Personal Care Products Council developed, aims to help women cope with side effects that affect their appearance. Wigs, hats, and scarves are potential options for coping with hair loss, according to the Cleveland Clinic. By building a support system comprised of family, friends, and healthcare professionals, people undergoing chemo can better manage the individualized side effects of this type of cancer treatment.

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