Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
Getting a diagnosis of cancer is terrifying. You have a whole host of questions running through your mind. Thinking about statistics, your family, and your future can be dizzying. One of the terrors that cancer warriors face, is coping with the side effects of chemotherapy if that treatment is prescribed. So, will you get some of these side effects? Maybe, maybe not. The way people react to these drugs varies person to person, and also drug to drug. With chemotherapy side effects being wide ranging, let’s talk today about how they present, and some ways that we can mitigate those effects.
Common Chemotherapy Side Effects
Many of the more common side effects we know about, such as hair loss, nausea, fatigue, and susceptibility to infections, bleeding, and bruising, but why do these happen? Much of these side effects of chemotherapy are due to the fact that chemotherapy drugs typically work by attacking rapidly growing/dividing cells – a category that cancers fall into, but so do hair follicles, blood cells, and the cells that line our oral and digestive tracts.
Some of these side effects of chemotherapy seem to come from a trickle-down effect, to borrow a term from my high school economics class. The chemotherapy itself can affect the production of red blood cells, and also can have a damaging effect on the lining of the digestive tract, which can induce nausea. Nausea and food aversions can exacerbate anemia when you don’t take in enough iron. Without enough iron, our blood doesn’t have the same capacity to carry oxygen to our tissues. With this, we can see fatigue, nerve and muscles issues such as numbness and tingling (although chemo can have a direct effect on nerve cells too), changes to libido, and “chemo brain” or brain fog. If blood counts drop severely, doctors may have to halt treatments until the anemia resolves.
A Healthy Diet
Speaking of digestion, maintaining a healthy diet during chemo can be difficult, but it is also vital to maintaining a healthy system that can fight cancer. Sadly, food aversions and nausea can make that even harder. If you are able to eat, make sure that you are getting plenty of iron. The American Cancer Society has a fantastic listing of iron rich foods if your anemia is mild. Also, don’t overlook the knowledge that can be gained from a nutritionist that has experience with oncology patients. Iron is needed to build red blood cells, and anemia is a major side effect of many types of chemo. Anemia is a low red blood cell count. Between the effects of chemo on the red blood cells themselves, and not being able to take in as much iron as perhaps is normal, blood counts can drop significantly during treatment. Fortunately, there are also some pharmaceuticals out there that can help with these types of anemia. Blood transfusions may also be necessary if the anemia becomes severe.
While some of us have always been health conscious, I think its fair to say that after a cancer diagnosis, we all become more aware of our health. Given this awareness, you may think – I’m going to load up on vitamins and supplements to help my body fight this demon cancer. Not so fast. While a multi-vitamin may be fine (still check it out with your doc), excess amounts of certain vitamins – such as vitamins A and C – can actually interfere with chemotherapy drugs due to their anti-oxidant mechanisms. If you take vitamins or supplements, or any medication (prescription or over-the-counter), be sure to discuss it with your doctor before you start your chemotherapy to make sure they won’t interfere with one another.
If you have a loved one is going through chemotherapy, take a look at out page dedicated to Chemotherapy Gifts. The merchants that we have highlighted have put together thoughtful gifts for cancer patients, that keep in mind the side effects of chemotherapy. Remember, while an aromatherapy candle or a box of chocolates may be great for a friend with a broken leg, they could actually make matters worse for someone dealing with chemo side effects.
As always, much love, abundant blessings, and many prayers to all of the cancer warriors and their families.