How Will I Feel After Chemotherapy?
It’s one of the most common questions we face from our patients at OHC. And no wonder.
Chemotherapy for most of us is a scary word. Often scarier than the actual treatment. It conjures images of being deathly ill, to the point of wondering if it’s worse than the cancer itself. Unfortunately, that image has been put in our mind from often less than reliable sources.
So let’s take a realistic look at chemotherapy; what it is, what it does, how it might make you feel, and how to treat any of its side effects.
The American Cancer Society describes chemotherapy as the use of medication to treat cancer. Unlike radiation therapy or traditional surgery, which target specific tumors, chemotherapy works through the entire body and can destroy cancer cells that have metastasized (spread to other parts of the body) or are located far from the original tumor.
There are different types of chemotherapy medications and they can be used in any combination to treat cancer. The medications work to kill cancer cells. However, because some chemotherapy isn’t targeted, it can kill healthy cells in the process. This leads to side effects, which many patients experience. Chemotherapy most commonly damages the blood-forming cells in bone marrow, cells in the digestive track, the reproductive system and mouth, and hair follicles.
However, one difference with the common image of chemotherapy played out on TV medical dramas is that not everyone experiences its ill effects.
The bottom line is that your experience is your own. While a rare patients will have long-term complications from their chemotherapy, many others will experience only mild symptoms. And some will have no side effects.
Yours will vary based on factors such as the length and dosage of your treatments and your overall history of health. Here are some of the more common side effects and how to minimize them.
Fatigue or tiredness is a prevalent symptom, but one that’s relatively simple to fight. Get plenty of rest, don’t overdo it, and know when to slow down. Listen to your family and friends if they see you over-exerting yourself.
Hair loss is another common side effect. It causes distress and, without the proper attitude and support, it can affect your self-esteem. While undergoing treatment, patients should use mild shampoos, soft-bristle hair brushes, and avoid coloring and perming your hair. If baldness does occur, be sure to protect your scalp from the sun with a hat, scarf, wig, or sunscreen. If your scalp feels sensitive or irritated, use moisturizing shampoos, conditioners, and lotions as liberally as needed. The hats, scarves, and wigs are a wonderful way to help your self-esteem — use them as an opportunity to make a fashion statement.
Chemo damages bone marrow, which results in a loss of blood cells. Doctors regularly monitor blood cell count during treatment, but patients should still tell their medical team about side effects like unexpected bruising or bleeding, pink or red urine, bad headaches, dizziness and pain in the joints and muscles. When a patient’s white blood cell count is low, risk of infection goes up.
There are many ways to prevent infection, some of which include frequent hand washing, avoiding crowds, and foregoing immunizations. Be aware of the signs of infection like fever, chills, and sweating.
Nausea and vomiting can be symptoms of chemotherapy. The degree to which you experience them will often depend on the type and dose of chemo medications administered. Take heart, there are anti-emetics (anti-nausea) medications that can almost always eliminate this unwelcome side-effect for some patients.
Besides taking anti-emetics, you should avoid big meals, chew your food well to aid digestion; drink water at least an hour before and after meals (instead of during); and avoid sweet, fatty, or fried foods.
Other common physical side effects include constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite, skin and nail changes, and nerve and muscle changes. If any of these happen to you,
don’t hesitate to ask your OHC doctor or APP (Advanced Practice Provider) about them. The sooner you tell us, the quicker we can help.
Aside from the physical side effects, patients may experience mental and emotional changes too. Chemotherapy can effect cognitive functioning too, such as changes in
your thinking, concentration, and memory. While troubling, there are many activities and games you can do to rebuild your memory and problem-solving skills. Your medical team can will have some great suggestions.
Chemo can be emotionally draining, sometimes more so than physically. So it’s essential that you have a reliable support group throughout your treatment. Support can come from friends and family, outside groups like the Cancer Support Community or Cancer Family Care, and even your doctors and nurses at OHC. Better yet, create a support team from a combination of all three.
While undergoing chemo, keep your treatment goals in mind. It helps to put things in perspective and makes your tougher days more manageable.
Eating well is paramount for recovering from and feeling better during treatment. Why? Because damaged tissues and cells need proper nutrition to regain their strength. As well, adding (some) exercise to your daily routine has been known to fight fatigue and boost overall morale. But don’t be afraid to take it easy, as your energy levels are likely to be lower than usual.
For those of you undergoing chemotherapy, being aware of your side-effects is paramount.
And while unpleasant symptoms can be alleviated with lifestyle changes, numerous medication options, healthy eating, and plenty of rest, please consult your medical team to find the best way to manage your physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Our number one job is to help you feel better…as soon as possible.
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