Side effects are an undesirable reality that can occur from any medication or treatment. As you consider your cancer treatment options, you will likely discuss the possible side effects of each one with your doctor. Which side effects you experience, as well as their severity, depend on many factors, like your overall health, the type of cancer being treated, the location of the cancer, which medication is being used and how it is given to you.
Although you can’t control which side effects you will get, there are ways to help ease some of the symptoms that you might experience.
Cancer treatments and possible side effects*
Chemotherapy works by attacking the rapidly-growing cancer cells.These medications travel throughout the body and can also damage healthy cells, leading to unwanted side effects.
Some common side effects of chemotherapy are fatigue, anemia, hair loss, nausea and vomiting, changes in appetite, bruising, bleeding, infections, constipation or diarrhea, changes to your skin and nails, weight loss or changes in mood. You might also experience problems with your mouth, throat, nerves, muscles, bladder or kidneys.
Sometimes, a side effect you may be experiencing can be a sign of a more serious issue. Ask your healthcare professional if there are any symptoms that you should look out for or report right away.
Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, weakness, nausea, diarrhea, body aches or fatigue are common side effects of cancer immunotherapy.
Some immunotherapy drugs can give you a rash and make your skin itchy. This can happen during your treatment and may last after treatment. Speak with your healthcare professional if you experience these skin changes. They can suggest creams or prescribe medicines to help relieve the itchiness.
Radiation can damage healthy cells in the treatment area, resulting in side effects. Which side effects a person experiences will depend on which part of the body is being treated.
In addition to side effects that are specific to a particular body part, some general side effects of radiation can include fatigue, anemia, hair loss, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, skin changes and reactions or low blood cell counts. Fertility problems, heart or lung problems, osteoporosis or second cancers are side effects that may appear long after your treatment has been completed.
Side effects are possible following any surgery. Some of the side effects that you may experience after having surgery for cancer are sore throat, pain, nausea and vomiting, bleeding, infection, blood clotting, nerve pain or damage, scarring, swelling, stomach problems or lung problems.
Shock is a serious side effect that can happen during or following surgery. It is also possible to experience a reaction to the anesthetic that is used during your surgery.
The side effects from hormone therapy you might experience depend on which type of hormone therapy you’re on, the dose and your overall health.
Some of the most common side effects include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, hot flashes, breast swelling or tenderness, weight gain, loss of interest in sex, blood clots, erectile dysfunction, diarrhea, muscle or joint pain and fertility issues. Other side effects can include bone loss (osteoporosis) and/or bone fractures, high blood pressure, low blood potassium and swelling (fluid retention). Cases of liver failure, some leading to death, have also been reported.
Stem cell transplant
A stem cell transplant is a very complex procedure that can lead to very serious side effects. Your blood counts will be affected and your immune system will be compromised for several months following the transplant. Your healthcare team will monitor you closely during this time to address any serious side effects that may occur.
Aside from a high risk of infection following a stem cell transplant, possible side effects include bruising and bleeding, anemia, blocked blood vessels in the liver, digestive problems such as nausea, vomiting, weight loss or diarrhea, skin and hair problems, problems with the kidneys, lungs, heart, central nervous system, eyes, bladder, thyroid, liver or bones. A stem cell transplant can lead to developmental issues in children or fertility complications. Some of these side effects can occur immediately after the procedure, while others may only appear months, or even years, following the transplant.
It is possible that the donor cells attack the cells in the recipient’s body, which can permanently damage an organ following a transplant. This is called graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). In other cases, the transplant can fail, or the recipient’s body can reject the transplanted cells. In these situations, a second stem cell transplant may be needed.
There are many different types of targeted therapy, therefore, the side effects experienced will depend on the type of drug(s) given, the dose, and how it is administered (i.e., as a pill, by injection, etc.), and your overall health.
Targeted therapy can lead to various side effects, including high blood pressure, serious bleeding, blood clots, problems with wounds healing, problems with your kidney, liver, heart or lungs, or holes in the stomach or bowel, some of which can be fatal. You may also experience water retention or skin issues, such as dry skin or rash.
Tips to cope with common side effects
Fatigue is a common side effect of many treatment options. To help reduce fatigue, you can:
- Take several short rests or naps throughout the day
- Do some light exercise, like going for a walk
- Reduce physically-intense activities
- Let you or someone else help with any tiring tasks, such as housework or trips to the grocery store
Hair loss can be an upsetting side effect of cancer treatment. Not only is it a dramatic physical change, but it is also a constant visual reminder to you and others of your battle with cancer. To try to reduce hair loss while undergoing therapy, wash your hair less frequently and avoid using harsh tools (such as hot irons, brushes or hair dryers) or treatments (such as hair dyes, perms or bleaches). Sleep on a satin pillowcase.
If you do lose your hair, protect your scalp with sunscreen or by wearing a hat when you go outdoors. Sunglasses can be worn to protect your eyes if your lashes or eyebrows fall out.
If you think you might want to wear a wig or toupee, pick one out before your hair falls out so that you can match it as closely as possible to your natural hair. Speak with your provincial or private insurance provider to find out if you are eligible for financial coverage of this purchase.
Properly managing nausea and vomiting is important to avoid dehydration, loss of appetite and fatigue. It can also help improve your quality of life as you undergo treatment. In addition to taking an antinausea medication, here are some other tips to help reduce the severity of symptoms:
- Try to avoid eating right before or after your treatment
- Don’t get hungry: eat snacks, such as crackers, toast, dry cereal or yogourt, every few hours
- Avoid foods with strong smells or flavours
- Stick to clear fluids, and take small sips throughout the day
- Try to distract yourself by talking with a loved one
- Breathing exercises, biofeedback, meditation or acupuncture can be helpful
Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, weakness, nausea, diarrhea, body aches or fatigue are common side effects of cancer immunotherapy. Rest and medication, such as acetaminophen, can be useful in managing these symptoms
* Comparative clinical significance has not been established.
If you experience these or any other side effects during your treatment,
speak with your doctor right away.
There are ways that you can help reduce or manage your side effects to get you through your treatment as comfortably as possible.