Chemotherapy Side Effects
Coping with side effects
Here are some things you can do for some of the most common side effects of chemotherapy.
There are three common blood problems caused by chemotherapy: neutropenia, a low level of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell that fights infections); anemia, a low level of red blood cells; and thrombocytopenia, a low level of blood platelets that help stop bleeding. When you are having chemotherapy, your doctor or nurse will check your blood counts regularly. If you do have one of these conditions, you may have to take special precautions, have treatments to boost your blood count, or delay your treatment until your blood cell counts rise.
People with neutropenia have a low level of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell. Since white blood cells help the body fight infection, people with neutropenia should watch for signs of infection, especially a fever. You have a higher risk of developing neutropenia if you are having chemotherapy and radiation at the same time.
To prevent infection:
Call your nurse or doctor right away if you have a fever (temperature over 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit when taken by mouth) or if you have signs or symptoms of an infection (such as a cough or a burning sensation when you urinate). Do not take medicine for your fever without talking to your doctor or nurse first.
Anemia (also see fatigue)
People with anemia have a low red blood cell count. Red blood cells help carry oxygen, so anemia may cause a person to feel tired, dizzy, or irritable.
If you have anemia:
People with thrombocytopenia have a low level of blood platelets. Since platelets help stop bleeding by making blood clot, people with thrombocytopenia may bruise or bleed easily. You have a higher risk of developing thrombocytopenia if you are having chemotherapy and radiation at the same time.
If you have thrombocytopenia:
Hair loss, or alopecia, can be one of the most devastating side effects of chemotherapy. Many people, but not all, lose their hair when having chemotherapy. Some people's hair just gets thinner, while others lose hair on their head, face, and pubic area. Hair usually grows back after treatment, but sometimes it grows back a different color or texture.
You can't do anything to prevent hair loss during chemotherapy; however, there are ways to cope.
Before hair loss happens:
After hair loss happens:
Nausea and vomiting
To prevent or reduce the effects of nausea and vomiting:
Take anti-nausea medicine as directed by your nurse or doctor. It if doesn't work, call your doctor and have the medicine changed. There are many different medicines and if one doesn't work, another will.
Medicines (especially pain medicines), lack of activity, and lack of food and fluids can cause this unpleasant condition.
To prevent or reduce the effects of constipation:
Ask your doctor or nurse if you can add more fiber to your diet. Foods such as fruits with skins (like apples and pears), raw vegetables, whole grains, and bran, are high in fiber.
Diarrhea can be a very serious condition.
To prevent or reduce the effects of diarrhea:
Drink plenty of fluids. The best fluids are clear, mild fluids, such as water, ginger ale, and clear broth.
Fatigue (see anemia)
Severe tiredness, called fatigue, is often one of the most overlooked and misunderstood side effects of chemotherapy. Fatigue can appear suddenly and it can last after your treatment ends. It's important to try to keep active if you have fatigue.
To prevent or reduce the effects of fatigue:
Sexual and reproductive problems
Both men and women can have sexual and reproductive problems when they are undergoing chemotherapy.
Men and women may have a decreased desire for sex. A man may not be able to get or keep an erection. A woman may have vaginal dryness, making intercourse painful. Sexual problems can also cause emotional problems, so couples need to be open with each other and explore ways to stay intimate during this time. Talk with your doctor or nurse for specific suggestions or ask for a referral for therapy if this is an issue.
Both men and women can become temporarily or permanently infertile due to chemotherapy. If childbearing is an issue, men may want to save their sperm in a sperm bank before beginning treatment. Women can have embryos frozen and may also be able to have their ovarian tissue frozen. If still menstruating, women can still get pregnant during chemotherapy. However, chemotherapy can damage chromosomes, causing birth defects. It's important to use birth control when having sex if you are still of childbearing age. Some women can't use the pill as a form of birth control during chemotherapy and should talk to their doctors about the best birth control for them during this time.
Chemotherapy causes some women's periods to stop. Some women go through menopause, while others only feel symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. If you have hot flashes, dress in layers, exercise, and avoid caffeine and alcohol. Talk to your pharmacist about vaginal gels or lubricants for vaginal dryness. Also, wear cotton underwear and loose-fitting pants to prevent yeast infections.
When you get chemotherapy, your senses of taste and smell may change, your mouth may get dry, and you may develop mouth sores. These conditions are usually temporary and end after you finish chemotherapy. Talk to your doctor about seeing your dentist before starting chemotherapy, since pre-existing dental problems may cause more problems during treatment. For example, dental problems can cause infections if white blood cell counts become lower.
To prevent or reduce the effects of mouth sores and mouth dryness: