Side effects of cancer treatment may vary from person to person, even among those receiving the same treatment.
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Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy the cancer cells in your body.
The type of cancer and at what stage the cancer is, will determine which chemotherapy drugs or a combination of chemotherapy drugs, the patient will be treated with.
Chemotherapy is mostly given intravenously, which means that the drug is administered directly into a vein by either a drip or injection.
Chemotherapy can also be in tablet of capsule form that are taken orally. The Oncologist together with the cancer team will work out a treatment plan that is best suited for the patient.
CANSA Fact Sheet: Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy kills the fast growing cancer cells in your body. People with cancer normally undergo chemotherapy to either destroy or slow down the growth and spreading of cancer cells.
Unfortunately cancer cells are not the only fast growing cells in the body. Healthy cells with similar characteristics such as a person’s hair follicles are also growing fast, which means that these cells may also be affected or having their function compromised.
That is why patients who receive certain chemotherapy lose their hair. Chemotherapy side effects may be mild and treatable while other side effects are more severe depending on the type of cancer, the chemo drugs used to treat it, as well as how the patient reacts to the chemo drugs.
The type of cancer will determine how many treatment cycles a patient has to undergo.
Most common side effects of chemotherapy:
- Hair loss
- Chemo brain (poor memory, lack of focus and mental clarity)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakened immune system (flu-like symptoms)
- Mouth sores
- Dental and gum problems
- Dry mouth
- Weight changes
- Skin and nail changes
- Changes in appetite or loss of appetite
- Changes in taste and smell
- Peripheral neuropathy or other nerve problems, such as numbness, tingling, and pain
- Fertility issues (females and males)
- low white blood cell count (neutropenia)
- oedema (swelling of body part caused by a build up of fluid)
- difficulty sleeping
- bleeding and bruising (thrombocytopenia)
Seek medical help when the following occurs:
- High fever
- Intense chills
- Allergic reactions
- Skin rash
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Bleeding or unexpected bruising
- Blood in stool or urine
- Long-lasting diarrhoea or vomiting
Radiation therapy is a treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours.
Radiation will burn cancer cells, damaging their DNA. Without a healthy DNA, cancer cells cannot multiply, limiting cancer growth all over your body.
Radiation beams pass through your body reaching a specific point, where the cancer is located.
There are two types of radiation therapy, namely external beam radiation therapy and internal radiation therapy called brachytherapy.
Sometimes, in order to be more specific, targeted therapy is used. It will distinguish good from bad cells, and only bad cells will be killed, keeping clean cells alive.
CANSA Fact Sheet: Radiation Therapy
Side effects vary from person to person and with regards to where the radiation therapy was focused in the body. Most of side effects will go away after treatment stops:
- Mouth sores
- Skin burn
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss
- Difficulty swallowing
Surgery to Remove a Tumour
Cancer surgery is an operation to physically remove a cancerous tumour from the body.
If the tumour is localised and the risk for the cancer to spread to other parts of the body is limited, a surgeon will consider removing the tumour.
To be certain that the whole tumour has been removed and that there are no cancer cells remaining at the tumour site, the surgeon removes some healthy tissue that surrounds the tumour. This is called a “margin” and if the margin is clean, then one can accept that the whole tumour has been removed.
In some cases, the surgeon may also remove some lymph nodes nearby that may contain hidden cancer cells.
Possible side effects of surgery are:
- Blood clots
- Damage to nearby tissues
- Drug reactions
- Damage to other organs
- Slow recovery of other body functions
Radical surgery involves the complete removal of a cancerous organ. There are many factors that determine whether or not this will be the correct option, such as which organ it is, what impact it will have on the quality of life of the patient, what reconstruction or diversion needs to be made in the case of a bladder or colon being removed and many more.
The side effects one may experience after cancer surgery will depend on the specific surgery. The types and severity of side effects vary from person to person based on several factors such as:
- Location and type of cancer
- Type of surgery
- Other treatments received before surgery, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy
- The patient’s general health
- The symptoms present before surgery
Stem Cell Transplant
A stem cell transplant, also called a bone marrow transplant, is a medical treatment that replaces the patient’s bone marrow with healthy cells to re-establish healthy stem cells that will regenerate healthy bone marrow.
The replacement cells can be from either the patient’s own body or that of a donor.
CANSA Fact Sheet: Stem Cells and Stem Cell Transplant
The side effects of a stem cell transplant are the same as for chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In addition the following side effects may be experienced:
- The risk of infection is high due to the body’s low levels of white blood cells.
- Anemia due to low levels of red blood cell count
- There is a high risk of bleeding due to low platelet count.
- Graft versus Host Disease or GvHD is a condition that might occur if the patient received donor stem cells and not their own stem cells, as the donor cells might attack the patient’s body causing inflammation.
Tips to Help You Cope with Side Effects of Treatment
2) Dietary Tips (including information to manage loss of appetite, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea and affordable, nutritious recipes)