Editor’s Note: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Nebraska Cancer Specialists has partnered with the Fremont Tribune to help provide important information for readers. This is the final story in a series of four on breast cancer and includes a side story on NCS support services.
As many cancer patients know, chemotherapy can have side effects.
Side effects can be different for each person, depending on the type and location of the cancer, the medications and dosages, and the person’s general health.
Nebraska Cancer Specialists provides a wealth of information about chemotherapy side effects and treatments through its website, nebraskacancer.com. He directs the patents to data provided through the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Chemotherapy targets active cells. Both cancerous and healthy cells are active, states ASCO.
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Cancer cells grow faster than healthy cells, making it easier for chemotherapy to attack cancer cells. But some normal cells can also be damaged.
Side effects occur when chemotherapy damages healthy cells. For most types of chemotherapy, side effects don’t show how well the treatment is working.
Doctors and scientists continue to work to develop drugs and ways to deliver treatment with fewer side effects, and many types of chemotherapy now have fewer side effects than in the past.
Side effects depend on the drug or combination of drugs prescribed. Each person’s experience is different.
Different patients may not experience the same side effects even when taking the same medication. They may have different side effects than they did in the past if they take the medicine again.
Common side effects include:
- Fatigue. Patients may feel tired or run down even if they get enough sleep. NCS offers a variety of services to help reduce the adverse effects of cancer and treatment, including pain, fatigue, mental confusion, and nausea.
- Hair loss. Some, but not all, chemotherapy treatments cause hair loss. The patient’s body hair may come out little by little or in large clumps. This usually starts after the first few weeks of chemotherapy. Doctors can predict the risk of hair loss based on medications and dosages received. NCS offers DigniCap, which is a clinically proven approach to reduce chemotherapy-induced hair loss. Patients wear the DigniCap during chemotherapy treatments. With DigniCap, the reduced temperature in the scalp causes the hair follicles to constrict and cell activity in the area to decrease.
- Pain. Chemotherapy can cause pain such as headaches, muscle pain, stomach pain, and pain from nerve damage. Most types of chemotherapy-related pain get better and go away between individual treatments.
Nerve damage often gets worse with each dose, and sometimes the drug causing it must be stopped. It is important for patients to talk with their health care team about their pain levels during chemotherapy.
Doctors can treat the pain by giving pain relievers; block pain signals from the nerves to the brain with spinal treatments or nerve blocks; adjusting the dose of specific drugs.
- Nausea and vomiting. Whether a patient has these symptoms and their frequency depends on the medications used and their dosage. Medicines can be given before and after each dose, which can usually prevent this. NCS also has a dietitian who can provide education on dietary measures to manage side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, and poor appetite.
- loss of appetite Patients may eat less than normal or not feel hungry or full after eating a small meal. Patients may need to eat five or six smaller meals a day or snack when hungry, making sure to eat snacks that are high in calories and protein.
- Sores in the mouth and throat. These generally occur five to 14 days after treatment. It is important to watch for infection in these sores.
- Diarrhea. Preventing or treating this early can help patients not become dehydrated.
- Constipation. Patients can lower their risk by drinking plenty of fluids, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly.
- blood disorders Chemotherapy can affect the bone marrow’s process of making new blood cells. Side effects can occur from having too few blood cells. The number usually returns to normal after chemotherapy is completed. Medication doses can often be adjusted to prevent low blood counts. Medications are also available to help the bone marrow make more cells.
- Heart problems. Some types of chemotherapy can affect the heart. Patients should ask their doctors if their heart will need to be tested before treatment so they can learn if treatment causes problems later.
- Nervous system effects. Some drugs cause nerve damage. They can cause nerve or muscle symptoms including: tingling, burning, weak, achy or sore muscles, tremors, trouble seeing, hearing or walking normally.
Symptoms usually improve with a lower dose of chemotherapy or after treatment. Some side effects may be permanent. ASCO website, cancer.netoffers a lot of information about side effects and how to manage them.
- Changes in thinking and memory. Some people have trouble thinking clearly and concentrating after chemotherapy. Cancer survivors often call this “chemo brain.” The condition usually improves or resolves after chemotherapy ends.
- Sexual and reproductive issues. Patients who want to have a child after cancer treatment should be sure to discuss fertility preservation with their health care team before starting chemotherapy.
After completing their treatment, patients will continue to see their doctors for follow-up care. Doctors watch for signs that the cancer is coming back, monitor for side effects of treatment, and monitor the patient’s overall health.
It’s normal for patients to feel apprehensive before chemotherapy treatments begin, but ASCO reminds everyone that treatment is different and that health care teams have more ways than ever to prevent and alleviate side effects.
Patients are encouraged to take an active role in treatment planning and ask when to expect side effects so they are not surprised when they occur.
They are encouraged to write down questions and concerns, no matter how big or small, and the doctor’s answers, and ask a loved one to come along to help. Patients are also encouraged to communicate frequently with health care providers so they can help them and also find ways to relax, such as deep breathing and music.
NCS offers a peer mentoring program, connecting newly diagnosed patients with current or former patients who can provide understanding and encouragement.
The NCS HOPE Foundation provides financial and emotional assistance and the Supportive Care Clinic is designed to provide comprehensive care to patients. The goal of clinical care is to prevent and alleviate the symptoms of disease and treatment.
You can find more information about NCS programs and services at nebraskacancer.com.