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The Side-Effects Of Chemotherapy, And How To Manage Them

Going through chemotherapy is a very difficult thing. Yes, it’s a very necessary and even life-saving treatment, but that doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable thing to go through. In fact, one of the main things cancer patients will speak about is just how many challenges going through chemo can throw at you, many of which you might not have been expecting.

What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is essentially bombarding your body with radiation in an attempt to shrink and kill the cancerous cells inside your body. It’s a cocktail of very powerful drugs, mixed in a way that will most effectively target your specific type of cancer. And whilst they kill the cancerous cells, they can also wipe out any rapidly- dividing healthy cells. That’s the ones in hair follicles, the digestive tract, the mouth and your bone marrow, which is what causes those common chemo side effects.

There are a few different types of chemotherapy drugs, which can affect the side effects you might get. Some are mild and easily treated at home. Some might be more unpleasant and need medications to manage, while others might need doctors or nurses to help. The good news is that once your chemotherapy treatment is finished, most of the side effects will go away, and while going through the side effects might not be pleasant, the benefits usually outweigh the risks.

Common Side-Effects

Hair Loss: This is one of the most widely publicised side-effects of chemo, and the most common. Not everyone will experience hair loss, but more people will. We’ve actually written an article dedicated to the various things you can do to prevent and manage hair loss during chemo, which you can read here.

Fatigue: Feeling tired and run down is one of the most universal side effects of chemo. You’ll probably feel most tied in the days right after treatment, with the fatigue fading slowly until the next treatment. Making sure you aren’t taking on too much during this time is important, but also doing some very light exercise can actually make you feel better. Just a short walk can be really helpful, so it’s important to stay a little active when you can manage it.

Nausea: No one likes feeling sick, and nausea is something that you’re more likely to experience during chemo than not. Thankfully, doctors have a whole host of anti-nausea drugs and treatments they can offer you, which can help keep the nausea and vomiting under control. It can also help to eat smaller meals more often and avoid greasy or spicy foods.

Suppressed Immune System: Chemo will significantly reduce the number of white blood cells produced by your bone marrow, which means that while you’re going through treatment (and for some time after) you won’t have much of an immune system. You have to be very careful during this, as even the common cold can become debilitating. Be extra strict about hand-washing, make sure you’re eating a good diet high in vitamins, and wearing a mask if you’re in public. If you get any of the warning signs of an infection (fever, cough, diarrhoea), you will need to let your cancer team know right away.

The Ones No-One Talks About

Mouth Sores: A lot of cancer treatments will harm the healthy cells in the lining of your mouth since these are high-turnover cells that divide rapidly. This can cause small, painful sores inside your mouth and on your lips. A study in 2019 found that sucking on ice during your treatments can actually reduce the risk of mouth sores, which follows a similar theory to cold capping. If you do get sores, rinsing your mouth with cooled boiled water and salt after meals and before bed can help them heal quicker.

Tingling Hands & Feet: This is called ‘peripheral neuropathy’, and it’s caused by the drugs damaging the nerves that control sensation and movement in your arms, legs, hands and feet. It can feel like numbness, tingling or weakness, and it’s important you let your doctors know as soon as possible. This affects around half of all people who have chemo, and usually it just means your drugs need to be adjusted or changed.

Taste Changes: Your sense of taste may go a bit loopy during treatments. You might not be able to taste anything, certain foods might taste different, or you may get a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth all the time. This is actually fairly common and usually get better after treatment finishes, but sucking sugar-free sweets can help alleviate it a bit.

Hearing Changes: You might get a ringing in your ears known as tinnitus, which will usually go away once the treatment ends. You might also stop being able to hear high-pitched sounds, and even your balance might be affected. These can be permanent, but they aren’t usually.

Broken Nails: Everyone talks about the hair changes, but did you know your nails can change too? They may grow more slowly and break more easily, so many people choose to cut them short to avoid ripping them and damaging the nail bed. You might also notice white or dark lines on your nails, which is a sign of damage to your immune system. In rare cases nails can even become loose and fall out. Most of the time these changes are temporary, and if you need some help with them then a podiatrist or qualified beautician will be able to help.

Late-Effects: Sometimes, side effects from chemotherapy don’t ever go away. Or they can develop months or even years after you've finished treatment. Some are minor and won’t impact your daily life, while others are extremely difficult to live with. A few of these include:

·         Peripheral neuropathy (see above)

·         Heart, lung or kidney problems

·         Increased risk of secondary cancer in later life

·         Fertility problems

·         Early menopause


Everyone’s journey with cancer and chemotherapy is different, and the stresses and side effects will change along the way. If you ever need some time away from it all, to collect your thoughts or just spend some time with your loved ones, then why not visit Jill’s Place? We offer free holidays to families impacted by a cancer diagnosis, so you can enjoy the peace you deserve. For more information, just get in touch with the team today.


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