Understanding the Side Effects of Chemotherapy Treatment

Understanding the Side Effects of Chemotherapy Treatment

Peace Nwoha |Apr 1, 2021

Chemo Side Effects

Chemotherapy is a treatment used to kill rapidly growing cells in your body, and chemo side effects can occur. The cells in our body have a "self-destruct" mechanism, but sometimes they can lose this ability and continue to grow into what is known as a tumor. These tumors then compete with healthy cells for nutrients and oxygen, thereby destroying the body.

The downside of chemotherapy is that it does not distinguish between fast-growing cells of the body and tumor cells. This lack of distinction between these cells results in the common side effects of chemotherapy treatment. Some rapidly growing cells in the body include cells in the inner lining of the mouth, nails, hair, and even blood cells. These areas are often affected during the treatment process.

Why Would You Undergo Chemotherapy?

Aside from using chemotherapy as the only treatment option to kill cancer cells, it is also used:

  • As an adjuvant treatment to kill cancer cells after surgery may have been done.
  • To shrink the size of tumors to enable surgery or radiation to eliminate the rest. This is referred to as neoadjuvant treatment.
  • It can also be used as a palliative measure to relieve you of the symptoms associated with cancer.

Chemotherapy Treatment

Chemotherapy treatment can be in the form of pills, creams, and injections, administered within the hospital or at home by an oncologist. It is advisable to have a family member drive you when you receive your first course because some people have reported feeling drowsy after receiving treatment.

During the treatment, you will be closely monitored through tests to know the effectiveness of the chemotherapy, and so the doctor can adjust it according to how you respond to it.

Common Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Due to the presence of rapidly dividing cells around the body and chemotherapy’s inability to separate them, the side effects affect multiple organs in the body. The most affected systems include the mouth, bone marrow, digestive tract, hair, and reproductive organs.

Chemotherapy reduces cells that provide immunity and protect you from infections. They also affect the red blood cells, which transport oxygen around your body, and the platelets, which stop you from bleeding out by forming a clot. All these manifest as:

  • Body weakness
  • Easy bruising
  • Pale skin
  • Getting sick more frequently
  • Blood in stools and vomit

You may also experience side-effects in the mouth and digestive systems. For the mouth, these include reduced saliva production, painful sores in the mouth, on the lips, tongue, and gums, which make eating and swallowing difficult. The loss of healthy cells in your mouth will also cause altered taste sensations and a yellowish covering on the tongue, ultimately leading to weight loss. For the digestive systems, common side-effects include constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. All of these can lead to weight loss and weakness.

Chemotherapy also affects the reproductive system and causes alterations in the hormonal levels of both men and women. Infertility can occur in both men and women from chemotherapy treatment, which could be temporary or permanent. Women experience altered periods, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, painful intercourse, an increased risk of vaginal infections, and early onset of menopause. Men experience reduced sperm count and libido.

Although individuals on chemotherapy treatment experience various symptoms, it does not hinder them from having healthy sex lives. Pregnancy is, however, discouraged in females because the toxicity of the medications could cause congenital disabilities.

The changes to your hair, nails, and skin often cause the most visible symptoms. These include hair loss or Alopecia from the head, eyebrows, lashes, hands, and legs. Thankfully, this effect is reversible after the last dose of chemotherapy. There could also be skin irritation, dryness, and rashes, as well as discoloration and brittleness of the nails.

Other side-effects of chemotherapy medications include swelling or tingling sensation in the limbs, reduced urination, generalized body pain, and weakness.

How To Manage the Side Effects

Preparation is essential, and this includes detailed instructions on the type of medications and dosages you’ll have. You’ll receive several tests on your liver, lung, heart, kidneys, and other organs to ensure that you are healthy enough to begin chemotherapy. Your dentist will also examine your teeth to ensure there are no active infections that could cause complications during the treatment.

Also, make sure to discuss possible side-effects ahead of time with your doctor so you can plan for them. Planning could include:

  • Preserving your eggs or sperms in case of infertility.
  • Having a head wrap or wig for hair loss.
  • Avoiding stressful activities and exposure to germs
  • Drinking lots of water to help relieve the digestion problems
  • Maintaining good oral and general body hygiene to prevent infections
  • Eating healthy meals including fruits and vegetables
  • Your doctor may prescribe anti-nausea medication to prevent vomiting

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