How Chemotherapy Affects the Body and How You Can Manage Symptoms

Sep 9, 2013 -  Cancer is a struggle that unfortunately many people come in contact with in their lifetime. But whether it’s a personal struggle with cancer or watching a friend, loved one or coworker fight back, it’s always easier if you know a bit more about what you are facing in the coming months—especially if the treatment course will include chemotherapy, effective but taxing drugs for cancer patients.

As with most drugs, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, chemotherapy frequently can have side effects on the rest of the body. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your cancer care team prepare for, treat, and in some cases, prevent these symptoms.

What side effects can I expect during chemotherapy?
Be sure to discuss with your cancer care specialists any or all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins. Most side effects go away once treatment is stopped. Common side effects of chemotherapy depend on the drug used, the dosage, and the length of treatment, and may include the following:
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mouth sores
  • Changes in how things taste or smell to you
  • Loss of balance
  • Severe fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Anemia
  • Reduced ability of blood to clot
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bladder irritation
  • Kidney damage
  • Numbness and tingling in hands and feet
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fertility issues
In addition, each chemotherapy medication may have its own specific side effects. Work with your cancer care team to communicate specific symptoms you are experiencing to manage them individually.

Steps you can take to deal with symptoms during cancer care
  • Slow down: Numbness and balance issues caused by the chemo drugs can easily trip you up. So when you can’t feel your feet very well, try to slow yourself down a little, watch your step and use handrails when you’re on the stairs. Use bath mats in the shower and wear rubber-soled shoes for better traction. When you have numb fingers, you won’t be as quick to notice if you touch something that’s too sharp or too hot. Try to handle objects gently and watch where you rest your hands.
  • Change up your diet: It can be hard to feel motivated to eat and drink when your mouth or throat hurts, or you just have zero appetite, but your body can tolerate chemotherapy better when it’s getting all the water and nutrients it needs. A registered dietitian at your cancer care center can help you plan meals and find foods that might help with side effects such as nausea. The National Cancer Institute offers some helpful advice on staying well fed to keep your strength up:
    • Try to eat meals and snacks with lots of protein and calories. They will help you keep up your strength, prevent body tissues from breaking down, and rebuild tissues that cancer treatment may harm.
    • Keep snacks in easy reach so you can eat something whenever you feel like it. Cheese and crackers, muffins, peanut butter, and fruit are good choices. When you go out, keep snacks with you such as peanut butter crackers or small boxes of raisins.
    • Many people find their appetites are better in the morning. If so, try eating your main meal of the day when you wake up, and have smaller meals or liquid meal replacements later on if you’re not as interested in eating.
    • Eat five or six meals each day instead of three big meals. Eating smaller meals can sometimes help offset nausea and upset stomach.
    • Try soft, cool, or frozen foods, such as yogurt, milk shakes, or popsicles.
    • During meals, sip only small amounts of water because drinking may make you feel full. If you want to drink more, do so 30 to 60 minutes before or after a meal.  
    • On days when you just can't eat, don't worry about it. Try to help yourself feel better. Start eating again as soon as possible, but tell your doctor if this problem persists for more than a few days.
  • Drink plenty of fluids: This will be hard. Especially when your mouth feels like sandpaper. But push the fluids. You will feel better when you do. Water is essential to your body's proper functioning and can help prevent kidney damage. This will also help with dry mouth. If you do have dry mouth, using a straw may make drinking easier. On those days when you don't feel like eating, try to make it your goal to at least drink all your water. 
  • Ask about herbal remedies or medications to reduce symptoms: Reach out to your cancer care team. Your doctor can recommend medications that can reduce nausea and increase appetite during treatment. Other medications can help with bowel regularity. Nurses and other members of your cancer care team can also be helpful with suggestions for herbal or alternative remedies like ginger, acupuncture and others.
Exercise as cancer care
The idea of exercise can be daunting even when you’re feeling good, but it can be well worth the effort. Strengthening exercises will keep your muscles strong so you can perform daily chores with greater ease. Walking and other aerobic activities will increase your endurance. It may take weeks or months for some people to regain their energy. Once chemotherapy is finished, though, normal cells recover. The side effects, including fatigue, should slowly go away.

It's best to start with low-intensity, short-duration activities three days a week. As your body adjusts and gets stronger, you can gradually work a little harder and a little longer at each session. A typical program might have you do aerobic and strengthening exercise on alternate days. You might start with five- to 10-minute sessions and work up to as much as 40 minutes over 15 weeks.

Exercise can help you take charge of your body. You can take responsibility for getting well and feeling better through regular participation. Being active, rather than passive, in the process of recovery will give you strength, courage, and confidence as your treatment continues.

Chemotherapy and your future family
Chemotherapy can cause issues with fertility and sexual function, too. If you haven’t had children yet, or are looking forward to more, you may want to talk about your treatment options with your cancer care specialist. Some chemotherapy drugs can cause temporary or permanent infertility, so men may wish to discuss the possibility of banking sperm, and women may wish to discuss egg harvesting, before treatment begins. Each may also wish to discuss alternate treatments. Some drugs can cause defects in sperm that could lead to birth defects, so men undergoing chemotherapy should use a condom during and for at least 48 hours following treatment.

Chemo can also cause erectile dysfunction or vaginal dryness. Men may want to speak with their doctor about using medication for treatment of ED, or simply consider partner intimacy that is not dependent on erectile function. Vaginal dryness can be treated with water- or mineral oil-based lubricants, or a prescription cream or suppository.

Where can I learn more?
Full-service cancer care centers like the Eastern Connecticut Cancer Institute can provide you with the chemotherapy you need, as well as nutritional support and symptom management, and gentle exercise options like yoga classes.


References:
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Haines, Cynthia, MD
Last Annual Review Date: 11/10/2012
© 2000-2012 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marcellin, Lindsey, MD
Last Annual Review Date: 11/16/2012
© 2000-2012 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kimberly, RN, MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Ward, Jefferey, MD
Last Annual Review Date: 4/11/2011
© 2000-2012 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

American Cancer Society. March 8, 2012 (latest revision). Complementary and Alternative Methods for Cancer Management. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/complementary-and-alternative-methods-for-cancer-management. Accessed March 14.


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