The side effects of chemotherapy

Different strokes for different folks

While it is natural to be concerned about undergoing chemotherapy, not all people experience hair loss or nausea. The side effects of chemotherapy vary widely depending on the person receiving it, as well as the type of chemotherapy medication and dosage used. Some people experience fewer or milder effects, while others receiving the same chemotherapy have side effects severe enough to require preventative medications or other medical care. Your health care team will also try to lessen the chance that you experience a side effect commonly associated with some chemotherapy. For example, a person who is receiving a chemotherapy medication likely to cause nausea and vomiting will often be prescribed an additional medication to lessen or prevent nausea and vomiting.

The goal of experts is to eventually create chemotherapy medications that target the cancer directly, without affecting the non-cancer areas of the body. But current chemotherapy medications are not specialized enough to recognize which areas of the body have cancer and which do not. Instead, these medications result in side effects when non-cancer areas are affected. Talk to your doctor if you experience unpleasant side effects, because often the benefits of treatment are much greater than the discomforts and risks. There may also be ways to minimize or prevent chemotherapy side effects.

They come and they go

Not all side effects appear at the same time. Some side effects start right away (if they occur); others take some time to develop. In some cases, the side effects will go away as your body adjusts to the medication.

The side effects that most commonly come first are nausea and vomiting. If these occur, they usually start soon after the treatments begin. Typically, they last a few hours, though they may last longer with some kinds of chemotherapy. A few chemotherapy regimens are associated with nausea and vomiting that starts a few days later.

Other side effects usually arrive during the first few weeks of treatment, though they may show up even later. These include hair loss, as well as diarrhea or constipation and mouth sores. You may also be more prone to infections, as your body's usual defenses are weaker than usual.

Some people recover completely from the side effects of chemotherapy. Some kinds of chemotherapy medications may have longer-term consequences, however. Some medications can permanently affect the heart, lungs, reproductive organs, nerves or other parts of the body. Talk to your doctor about your chemotherapy so you know what to expect.

Many side effects can be prevented, and those that come can often be treated effectively – talk to your doctor, pharmacist, nurse or dietitian about ways of dealing with side effects. Some will gradually go away after the treatment is over or even during the course of treatment. Your overall physical health is an important factor – the healthier you are, the easier it will be for you to handle the side effects. Having a good attitude and emotional support also makes a difference, since people who are overly concerned about side effects will generally have more than those who learn to relax. And, of course, the type and dose of medication will make a difference. Ask your health care team for information on your treatment so you can be prepared.

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