Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects

The treatment of cancer may include the use of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biological therapy, surgery or some combination of all of these therapeutic options. All of these treatment options are directed at killing or eradicating the cancer that exists in the patient’s body. Unfortunately, the delivery of cancer therapy, including chemotherapy, often affects the body’s normal organs and tissues not affected by cancer. The undesired consequence of damaging healthy cells is a complication of treatment, or a side effect. Side effects may be acute (short-term), chronic (longer-term), or permanent. When cancer treatments are evaluated, side effects are measured and reported as part of the treatment evaluation. Examples of acute side effects include nausea and vomiting, and mouth sores (mucositis).

Why do side effects occur?

Unfortunately, most chemotherapy drugs cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell.  Therefore, chemotherapy often affects the body’s normal tissues and organs which results in complication of treatments, or side effects.

Side effects cause inconvenience, discomfort, and may occasionally be fatal. Additionally and perhaps more importantly, side effects may prevent doctors from delivering the prescribed dose of therapy at the specific time and schedule of the treatment plan. Because the expected outcome from therapy is based on delivering treatment at the dose and schedule prescribed in the treatment plan, a change from the treatment plan may reduce your chance of achieving an optimal outcome. This is extremely important to understand. In other words, side effects not only cause discomfort and unpleasantness, but may also compromise your chance of cure by preventing the delivery of therapy at its optimal dose and time.

What are the most common side effects?

All chemotherapy is associated with a wide variety of side effects. However, some side effects occur more frequently than others. Whether you will experience side effects, which ones, and their severity depends on a variety of factors, including your type of cancer, the type of chemotherapy drug or regimen you are taking, your physical condition, your age, and others. However, the following side effects are typically associated with chemotherapy:

  • Anemia
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Hair Loss
  • Infection/Fever
  • Low Blood Counts
  • Mouth Sores
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Neutropenia
  • Pain
  • Reproduction/Sexuality
  • Thrombocytopenia

Can anything be done about side effects?

Fortunately, in the last 20 years there has been a great deal of progress in the development of treatments to help prevent and control the side effects of cancer therapy. These developments have:

  • Led to vast improvements in the management of symptoms associated with cancer treatment
  • Allowed chemotherapy to be delivered with greater accuracy and consistency,
  • Made many cancer treatments more widely available.

For example, modern anti-vomiting drugs, called antiemetics, have reduced the severity of nausea and vomiting with chemotherapy. In addition, blood cell growth factors are now available to protect patients from infection, to reduce the fatigue associated with anemia, and to ensure that treatment can be delivered at the planned dose and schedule for optimal outcomes.