How to Relieve the Most Common Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Every year, approximately 650,000 cancer patients receive chemotherapy in outpatient oncology clinics in the United States. Over half of the people who struggle with cancer need treatment with chemotherapy, whose purpose is to destroy malignant cells.
While for some individuals, chemotherapy is the only cancer treatment they undergo, others will receive it before or after surgery. The role of chemotherapy before surgery is to decrease the size of the malignant tumors, whereas the scope of this treatment after surgical intervention is to ensure that the patient is completely free of cancer.
However, chemotherapy usually has numerous unpleasant side effects, as it is often a very aggressive treatment. Although the advance of medicine has reduced the number, as well as the intensity, of the symptoms caused by chemotherapy, the vast majority of cancer patients still experience certain side effects that often interfere with their daily life. The following are the most common side effects of chemotherapy and how to relieve them if you are currently fighting cancer.
1. Nausea and Vomiting
These side effects are some of the most common among cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy, as between 70% and 80% of them experience nausea and vomiting. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to avoid or reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, such as:
- ask your doctor to prescribe you medication against nausea: two of the most effective drugs that relieve nausea are ondansetron and prochlorperazine maleate and, if your doctor prescribes you one of them, you should take it one hour before eating, which will help you maximize the amount of food you can eat and allow you to enjoy your food more
- avoid your favorite food: while this may be difficult, it is recommended to avoid eating your favorite food if you underwent chemotherapy and feel nauseated, as this could make you associate it with the unpleasant feeling, and the next time you try to eat it, it could make you feel queasy
- have a smaller meal every 2 to 3 hours: oftentimes, having your stomach empty may cause you to feel nausea, which is why you should try to eat a small meal every 2 to 3 hours instead of fewer large meals during the day, which may consist in snacks such as pretzels, crackers, toast, yogurt, cheese, or a milkshake
- drink liquids between your meals and snacks: if you drink too much water or other liquids with your meal, this will make you feel full quicker, so you may want to avoid it by drinking a lot of fluids between your meals and snacks, which will also keep you hydrated
- avoid warm food: cold foods are better tolerated by your stomach if you feel nauseated, so try to eat foods such as yogurt and ice cream, as well as cooked meals that you left to cool down for 30 minutes
- use ginger and peppermint: these two herbs are ancient remedies for nausea, so you can try to make a cup of ginger or peppermint tea, eat ginger or peppermint candies, or smell a tissue on which you put ginger or peppermint essential oil to relieve your nausea
- avoid strong smells: if you live in the house with other people, avoid the kitchen area while your family or friends are cooking, as half of our taste sensors come from the nose, and you can also try to open a window so as to make the strong smell disappear from the room
- eat what you want: if you feel like having breakfast food for dinner or vice versa, you should do it, as it is very important to listen to your body and what it needs during chemotherapy and to not force yourself to eat something that does not appeal to you at that moment
There are also complementary and alternative remedies for nausea, such as acupuncture and relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation. Furthermore, it was found that bland foods, such as crackers, toast, bananas, potatoes, chicken broth, and rice, as well as sour foods, such as sour candy, pickles, lemons, and limes, can alleviate nausea.
The reason why many cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy experience fatigue is the fact that this treatment also destroys healthy cells in addition to malignant ones and the fact that the body is striving to repair the damage caused by chemotherapy. Unfortunately, for 20% to 30% of cancer survivors, fatigue lasts for 5 to 10 years after they cease undergoing chemotherapy. Nevertheless, there are multiple ways in which you can counteract this bothersome side effect, including:
- sleeping well and enough: avoid reading or working on your laptop while you are in bed and stay away from music and screens before sleeping, as these activities can make you feel more restless, but instead, you should try meditation or journaling before bed and avoid taking long naps during the day
- exercise: while you most likely do not feel like it, engaging in physical activity can actually boost your energy, and you should try light exercise for at least 15 minutes every day with the approval of your doctor, which should ease your fatigue
- have a simple routine: during chemotherapy, it is a bad idea to experience high-stress levels, so you should do just what is necessary and take frequent breaks during which you should rest
- ease your mind: another beneficial idea if you experience chemotherapy fatigue is to practice mind-body workouts such as yoga, tai chi, or qi gong, which can lower your fatigue levels by helping you focus on relaxation
- talk to a mental health professional: struggling with cancer is without a doubt one of the most difficult, exhausting, and challenging situations, which is why you may greatly benefit from talking with a counselor, psychologist, or another mental health professional who can help you let out feelings of fear, hopelessness, and anxiety
- stay hydrated: because dehydration can make you tired and confused, you should make sure you drink enough liquids during the day, such as water, soup, gelatin, ice pops, as well as fruits and vegetables, as they have a high water content
- spend time outside: sitting on a bench, birdwatching, or going for a walk can help you feel more alert and mentally refreshed
- eat foods rich in iron: foods like spinach, lentils, beans, fortified cereals, and red meat should be a regular part of your diet, as, in the absence of enough iron in your blood, you can develop anemia, which will only exacerbate your fatigue
If you feel too overwhelmed by the errands you have to run and by the tasks you have to do, you should not be afraid to ask your loved ones to help you, as they will certainly be very understanding and lend you a helping hand while you are navigating through this difficult period of your life. They can help you around the house and shop for groceries for you, as well as drive you to your chemotherapy sessions and other medical appointments. A strong support system is essential for every cancer patient and, if you do not have family or friends, you can reach out to non-profit organizations whose purpose is to help cancer patients.
3. Chemo Brain
Chemo brain refers to experiencing mental fog and a decrease in mental sharpness after undergoing chemotherapy. It can prevent cancer patients from performing a lot of important activities, such as school, work, or social activities, which is why it is essential to manage this side effect. Some examples of symptoms people with chemo brain experience are:
- forgetting things that they usually have no difficulty remembering
- difficulty remembering names, dates, and events
- trouble learning new things
- difficulty multi-tasking, such as answering the phone while cooking
- trouble concentrating and having a short attention span
- taking a long time to finish things
Some of the most effective remedies for chemo brain are the following:
- cognitive rehabilitation: this is a program that includes activities that are meant to improve brain function, such as learning how the brain works and ways to accumulate new information and performing new activities
- exercise: physical activities such as caring for pets, gardening, or walking can significantly improve the ability to think and focus
- meditation: it can enhance brain function by increasing focus and awareness
Moreover, there are multiple ways in which you can sharpen your mental abilities and cope with chemo brain, such as:
- using a daily planner, notebook, reminder notes, or your phone, as keeping everything in one place will make it easier for you to remember what you need to do
- taking care of the most demanding tasks when you feel that your energy levels are at their highest
- exercising your brain by taking a class, doing word puzzles, or learning a new language
- working out, since regular physical activity improves your mood, makes you more alert, and lowers your fatigue
- eating vegetables, as medical studies found that having a diet rich in vegetables is associated with maintaining brainpower as you age
- making a simple routine that you follow every day
- choosing a certain place where you put your most important objects, such as your keys
- avoiding alcohol and other substances that may interfere with your mental state and sleeping patterns
If chemo brain is affecting your daily life to a great, unmanageable extent, we strongly advise you to bring this issue up to your doctor, who will be able to help you function normally in your everyday life. Furthermore, letting your family and friends know about this serious side effect of chemotherapy is also very important, as they can help you cope with your daily routine easier by reminding you of essential dates and events.
4. Hair Loss
Contrary to popular belief, it is not cancer that makes your hair fall out, but chemotherapy. Approximately 65% of people who undergo chemotherapy will experience hair loss. Fortunately, this side effect is temporary and reversible. In the meantime, what you can do to manage it is the following:
- avoid products with harsh chemicals, such as hair dyes and permanents
- use soft-bristle brushes to comb your hair
- cut your hair shorter to make it look thicker and fuller
- if you intend to buy a wig, it is a good idea to shop for it before hair loss occurs, as this way, it will match your hair better
- wear a hat or a scarf during cold weather and use sunscreen to protect your scalp from the sun
- because your scalp may feel dry and tender, you should try washing it with mild moisturizing shampoos and conditioners and apply gentle lotions
It is important to know that wearing a scalp cooling cap during chemotherapy infusions may help prevent hair loss, as it reduces the amount of chemotherapy drug that reaches your scalp. In most cases, hair loss begins occurring within 2 to 4 weeks of starting chemotherapy. However, the degree of hair loss will depend on the type of chemotherapy you undergo, as some chemotherapy drugs are less aggressive than others.
Last but not least, you should know that some health insurance plans cover wigs if you are struggling with hair loss as a consequence of cancer. Therefore, you may want to call your insurance provider to find out if the cost is covered. To receive a reimbursement, you will most likely have to ask your doctor for a cranial prosthesis prescription.
Because chemotherapy takes a heavy toll on your immune system and, thereby, also on the ability of your body to fight infection, you are now more prone to experience one. This is a very important aspect to keep in mind, as the infections you may develop during your chemotherapy treatment may become very serious. Consequently, you should take preventive measures to avoid getting infections, such as:
- thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water, particularly after you used the toilet, before cooking, and after touching pets or animals
- avoiding getting in contact with people who have infections such as chickenpox or flu
- getting the annual flu vaccine
Your doctor may prescribe you antibiotics as a preventive measure if you are undergoing chemotherapy, which will drastically reduce your risk of infections. It is crucial to immediately call your doctor if you experience a fever or if you feel sick during your chemotherapy treatment. The most serious health complication infections can lead to is sepsis, which is the extreme response of your body to the infection. It is a life-threatening medical emergency.
There are numerous other chemotherapy side effects people with cancer experience, such as anemia, bruising and bleeding, a sore mouth, loss of appetite, skin and nail changes, sleep problems, as well as sex and fertility issues. If one of these side effects is causing you great distress in your daily life as a cancer patient, you should discuss it with your doctor as soon as possible, as they have the expertise to offer you professional advice.
While undergoing chemotherapy may seem to have more drawbacks than benefits, you should always keep in mind the purpose of this treatment, namely to keep your cancer under control or to even cure it, which is undoubtedly the ultimate goal of most cancer patients. Lastly, having a strong support system, which includes your family and friends, and also your medical team, is of utmost importance when you are fighting cancer, and you should not be afraid to reach out to these people as often as you need.