Chemotherapy (chemo for short) is a type of cancer treatment involving the administration of drugs, which are injected or taken orally, either in pill or liquid form. This form of therapy is targeted to stop the growth of cancer cells or slow down its progression. The most common side effects of chemo are digestive upset (including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea), hair loss, and fatigue. If your oncologist has recommend chemotherapy to treat your cancer, he or she may may also recommend ways to avoid any unpleasant side effects during your treatment. Here is a rundown on the possible side effects of chemo and how you might prevent those issues:
1. Digestive Issues
Some cancer-fighting drugs given during chemotherapy may cause digestive upset in certain individuals. Because these drugs are systemic in nature, they often affect the entire body, or various other areas besides the targeted cancer. Most commonly, chemo drugs affect healthy cells within the stomach lining. This in turn may lead to digestive issues, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. Some individuals experience side effects shortly after the therapy is administered, while others aren't affected until the next day. Here's what you can do to combat these issues:
Be Informed About the Drug You'll Be Given:
Your first course of action should be to ask your oncologist if the drug you will receive is classified as low, moderate or high risk for stomach and gastrointestinal side effects. If you've taken medications in the past that have caused intestinal distress, your risk may be higher. In such a case, the doctor might prescribe chemo drugs that have a lower incidence of causing these issues.
Ask About Anti-Nausea Medication:
If you anticipate or experience severe nausea during treatment, your doctor may prescribe what is known as an antiemetic. This is a type of drug given to control nausea or vomiting.
Watch Your Diet:
Consume easy-to-digest foods after your chemo session, including clear broths, crackers, rice, and toast. Avoid eating heavy meals, opting for several mini-meals throughout the day instead. It's also best to wait an hour or two after your treatment before you eat or drink liquids.
Try Slow Breathing, Meditation, or Relaxation Techniques:
Some individuals find that deep breathing and relaxation techniques helps combat nausea. It may be worth a try if you feel a wave of nausea coming on.
2. Hair Loss
Chemotherapy drugs affect healthy cells in hair follicles as well. This is what leads to the loss of hair in many patients undergoing treatment. The proper term for this condition is known as alopecia. You should note that not every chemotherapy drug will cause hair loss, and some low-dose treatments may not have an affect at all. If you do experience chemo-induced hair loss, your hair should regrow after your treatments stop. Meanwhile, you might want to minimize the affects with the following measures:
Try a Chemo Cold Cap:
These cold caps are placed over the head and scalp. They are infused with a cooling gel, which lowers the temperature of the area surrounding the scalp. In turn, this constricts the blood vessels, preventing the chemo drugs to penetrate and affect the hair follicles. You may be instructed to wear the cap during and after chemo sessions for a designated period of time. However, this option may not be suitable for those undergoing treatment for brain cancer, as it may make the chemo treatments less effective.
Protect Your Hair and Scalp:
If you're prone to hair loss due to chemotherapy treatment, you need to protect your hair from further damage. Use gentle shampoo, avoid styling products (especially hot curling irons), and use a hat or scarf when outdoors to protect your scalp from exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays.
3. Post-Chemo Fatigue
Cancer-related fatigue is a common complaint of many patients receiving treatment. Depending upon the type of drugs given and the dosage, the fatigue may be mild or debilitating. There are several smart strategies for combating fatigue related to your chemo treatment. First and foremost, keep a log of when you feel most tired, so you may know what activities may worsen your fatigue. For instance, you might need to avoid driving following a treatment session, or cut back on your consumption of carbohydrates. You might also need to avoid exposure to extreme temperatures, which might be contributing your your low energy levels.
Also, speak to your physician or oncologist about prescribing a vitamin supplement that may help combat fatigue. You might also want to consult with a dietitian or nutrition expert to ensure you are receiving the proper nutrients in your diet.
Finally, ask your doctor if moderate exercise might be helpful in fighting fatigue. You may find that a brisk walk or even a swim might make you feel revitalized throughout the day.
As a side note, err on the side of caution and don't undergo any major lifestyle changes without first consulting with your doctor or oncologist.