Like any other treatment for cancer patients, chemotherapy can cause side effects that differ in severity depending on the individual patient and the potency of the treatment. Fortunately, there are options to ease many of these side effects.
When suffering from pain, the patient can work on a plan to manage it with the doctor or pain specialist, although reaching the optimum pain management plan can take some time as medications are adjusted or changed in order to find the best formula for the individual patient. There are short and long-acting oral medications available, as well as skin patches that could have lesser side effects than oral drugs.
Chemotherapy can also cause nausea and vomiting in patients. There are medications available to prevent both short-term, long-term and acute nausea. It is common to have certain steroids prescribed for nausea, but normally these drugs do not result in side effects such as immune suppression and swelling, which can occur with long-term steroids.
Neuropathy, or damage to the peripheral nerves, may be another side effect of chemotherapy. In the case of sensory neuropathy, the most common form, symptoms include numbness, tingling, pain or loss of sensation in the fingers and toes, or perhaps in the overall hand and foot. Motor neuropathy can cause imbalance and muscle weakness. The nerves may eventually heal, but some drugs can cause permanent damage. There are medications that may be able to lessen the effects of neuropathy, or a change in drugs may be appropriate.
Another side effect of chemotherapy is hair loss, which may be experienced in the head and other areas of the body. Since there is no effective treatment for hair loss caused by this treatment, the patient can try using wigs or scarves, or nothing at all if preferred. After the treatment is finished, the hair should begin to grow back within a few weeks.
Chemotherapy may cause anemia by damaging the red blood cells and stem cells that produce them. There are medications that can treat this kind of anemia, but certain drugs can cause serious side effects, including blood clots. Chemotherapy can also destroy neutrophils, which are the most abundant white blood cells that fight infection. When the patient suffers from neutropenia (the shortage of these cells), specific drugs may be prescribed to improve symptoms such as fatigue, fever and body aches.
Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy may experience fatigue from which they cannot recover by sleeping or resting. There are some medications that may help with this condition, and exercise may prove beneficial for some patients.
Given the possibility of these and perhaps other side effects, doctor and patient should discuss them prior to starting chemotherapy, as well as during the course of the treatment if side effects are experienced by the patient.