There are numerous ways to treat cancer, but the most common cancer treatments include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, biological therapy, hormone therapy and surgery. Each treatment type can come with its own side effects, which may include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, decreased blood cell counts or anemia, mouth sores, appetite changes, skin changes, throat changes, or hair loss. While these possible side effects of treatment can be unpleasant, there are many ways to manage them.
Commonly, patients report feeling fatigued after undergoing cancer treatment. Fatigue can affect a patient:
- A few days after chemotherapy treatment
- A few weeks after beginning radiation treatment
- After treatment with immunotherapy
To manage your fatigue, make sure you are getting plenty of rest, especially on days that you undergo treatment. Report signs of fatigue to your physician, because your fatigue may be linked to treatable conditions, such as anemia or depression. Both of these conditions can occur as a result of various cancer treatments. To manage fatigue, make sure you maintain a healthy balance between rest and activity and pay attention to your sleep habits. Keeping track of the severity of your fatigue can help your physician better determine the cause. If you feel that you are experiencing signs of depression, ask your physician for a referral to a therapist who specializes in cancer patient therapy.
Anemia occurs when the body does not make enough blood, is losing blood, or destroys red blood cells. Red blood cells are important because they help to transport oxygen to all parts of the body, and if the oxygen is not being transported properly, you will feel tired and weak. Often, chemotherapy and radiation therapies can cause damage to red bone marrow, which lowers the production of red blood cells. Anemia is diagnosed by a blood test to determine your red blood cell count. If you are anemic, treatment options include blood transfusions, red blood cell production stimulators, or vitamin supplements.
Mouth Sores occur in almost 40% of patients receiving chemotherapy. Chemotherapy treatment can damage the cells lining a patient’s mouth and throat, causing inflammation and sores. These sores may become infected, but will typically heal and go away after treatment has ended. To help manage mouth sores, be sure to maintain good oral hygiene. Brushing your teeth and flossing gently several times daily can help keep bacteria out of the sores, allowing them to heal faster. Try to avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol and gargle with a mixture of warm water, baking soda, and salt instead. Minimize the amount of time that you wear dentures, and consider removing them between meals to reduce irritation. Eating soft foods and not eating spicy, acidic, or coarse foods will also help manage mouth sores. To help prevent mouth sores, chew or suck on ice chips before, during, and after treatment sessions. Also, your doctor may prescribe an anesthetic mouthwash to help with any pain you may have.
Nausea is typically a side effect of most cancer treatments. It is common to feel nauseous in anticipation of treatment, or as a direct side effect of the treatment medications. Patients who are likely to experience nausea or vomiting may include:
- People who have previously vomited after cancer treatment
- People who often have motion sickness
- People who are anxious before cancer treatment
- People younger than 50, especially women
Often, patients can manage their nausea by using methods like distraction, relaxation, and positive imagery to help change the expectation and fear of nausea and vomiting. However, if a patient experiences acute symptoms, his physician may give anti-nausea medications.
Managing Your Side-Effects
Each treatment for cancer has its own possible side effects, so it is important to discuss these with your physician before receiving treatment. Knowing what to expect can reduce your anxiety about treatment and you can prepare to handle any side effects appropriately. Though there are no immediate cures for all side effects of cancer treatments, most can be managed to make your treatment easier.