SIDE EFFECTS OF CHEMOTHERAPY
Chemotherapy or Chemo is a widely known cancer treatment that uses one or more drugs or drug combinations that work towards curing cancer, prolonging life or reducing symptoms that show up with the disease. The term means the use of drugs to treat diseases but is popular in cancer treatment and it has become synonymous with a major type of cancer treatment. What chemotherapy does is, it attacks all the cells that multiple, irrelevant of their cancerous nature and hence there is a noticeable loss in the number of cells in the patient undergoing chemo.
Chemotherapy kills all cells that divide and the most obvious change we see in people undergoing chemo is hair loss. This is one of the major side effects of cancer in cell loss category. When chemo works, all major cells like red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, hair follicles are killed off. Apart from these, other side effects include fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, muscle pain, headaches, burning sensation in the fingertips. There are short term and long term side effects that continue to appear from anywhere between two weeks to after a year after the treatment.
Not all people who undergo chemo necessarily encounter side effects whereas, some experience second cancer years after completion of chemo. The type of cancer, chemotherapy doses, target region, duration and overall health of the patient play crucial factors for the onset of side effects of the chemotherapy. Different drugs cause different side effects and it is imperative to tell one’s doctor of the side effects or symptoms during this treatment. Some common symptoms are intense chills, bleeding, bruising, shortness of breath, vomiting, bloody stool, rashes, pain at the chemo injection site, fever of up to 100.5 Fahrenheit. If any of these symptoms are seen, patients are advised to contact their cancer care team immediately as these may lead to severe side effects if left unchecked.
The short term side effects are the above said side effects in addition to mouth sores which show up just 5 to 14 days of the treatment, chemo brain or brain fog which simply put, is deterioration of concentration and focus, weakness or numbness in hands and feet, shaking, trembling, loss of balance, loss of appetite, blood disorders and increased acquiring of infections due to loss in white blood cells. Long term side effects, often called late effects to affect the person long after the treatment has been completed. Those who have received chemotherapy and radiation therapy, a combination which is sometimes required, experience heart problems, especially those who have taken higher doses during chemo. This is because certain drugs affect the cells in the heart, lungs, kidney, bladder, nervous system. Other major late effects include hypertension which comes with congestive heart failure which is caused due to the use of chemotherapy drugs like Trastuzumab, Doxorubicin, Daunorubicin and Epirubicin that lead to heart diseases and Bevacizumab, Sorafenib and Sunitinib which lead to high blood pressure. Patients who use drugs like Bleomycin, Carmustine often experience lung problems leading to thickening of the linings of the lungs, inflammation of lungs, difficulty in breathing.
Hormonal problems are yet another myriad of problems leading to infertility in women and men when there is treatment involved in the reproductive organs, and in women, chemotherapy brings menopause in an aggravated manner that comes with hot flashes, osteoporosis, and bladder control problems which are more worse than when showing up as symptoms of natural menopause. Chemo in the head and neck area may lead to thyroid problems. Bone, spinal cord, nerve problems are seen and lead to hearing loss, increased risk of stroke, and peripheral neuropathy. Dental, oral and vision problems are seen more commonly.
Digestion problems that arise due to chronic diarrhea are a result of the body’s inability to absorb nutrients when chemo is done in the abdominal area. Tissue scarring and abdominal pain also exist. While people tend to increase their intake of certain nutrients to improve their diet in hopes of curing their cancer and the cancer symptoms during chemo, these nutrients may adversely act on the treatment by rendering ineffective the treatment and the drugs. The drugs used in chemo may include steroids that might lead to vision problems like clouding of the eye leading to cataract. Fatigue is a major short term and long term side effect widely seen in most of the cancer survivors. One very problematic side effect of chemo is secondary cancer, which develops as a late effect of cancer treatment years after the treatment is done.
Transitioning out of cancer treatments like chemo requires medical support and most importantly emotional support from the survivors’ caregivers. One must be in regular touch with their cancer care team and observe the changes from the very first day of cancer chemo and until the end of the last seen cancer chemo symptom. By actively reaching out for help and support from family and friends and with continuous follow-up care and post-treatment support centers that support with the challenges of facing life after and with cancer chemotherapy symptoms.