With 28% of cancer diagnoses being treated with chemotherapy, it is likely you may be prescribed this as part of your treatment plan. Chemotherapy is effective because it exterminates cancerous cells that are multiplying at an abnormally fast rate. Unfortunately, it also halts the reproduction of non-cancerous cells, which can cause a variety of unpleasant side effects. If you have been prescribed chemotherapy, it is unlikely that you’ll experience all of the symptoms below. For any that you do, we have suggested steps to help you manage them and regain some control.
Feeling tired and lacking energy to carry out everyday tasks is the most common and debilitating side effects of chemotherapy. Completing light aerobic exercise can help to combat this by boosting energy levels, maintaining the muscles’ capability to do work and promoting better sleep quality. Levels of fatigue will decrease after treatment ends, although some people find the effects can last for over a year afterwards.
TIP: Reducing caffeine and alcohol intake and drinking water will also help increase your energy.
This is the second most common side-effect. You will likely be prescribed anti-emetics to help tackle this, but it will also help to avoid strong-smelling or fatty foods, wear loose clothing and go for frequent, gentle walks with lots of fresh air.
TIP: Ginger and peppermint are great natural anti-emetics. Try pouring some hot water onto fresh mint leaves or ginger to make a soothing tea.
3. Diarrhoea and constipation
Diarrhoea and constipation are common. If you experience either, avoid foods which are gas-forming, like beans, cruciferous vegetables, and carbonated drinks. Grilled, steamed or poached foods will be much easier digested than greasy or rich foods. Drink plenty of water (little and often) and exercise gently as and when you feel able.
TIP: Don’t allow these symptoms to restrict you from doing everyday activities – head to this fantastic website (https://greatbritishpublictoiletmap.rca.ac.uk) to locate the nearest public toilets when you are out and about.
During treatment, you may be more susceptible to infection, particularly when your white blood cell count is at its lowest. Ensure you wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, using soap and water. When preparing food, make sure it is cooked thoroughly and stored at the correct temperature. It is sensible to avoid crowded places or people that you know have an infection or cold.
TIP: When on the move, pocket-sized hand sanitizer is fantastic at keeping germs at bay.
5. Hair loss
Not all chemotherapy drugs will cause hair loss but if you are affected, there are a number of different options to explore. Toni & Guy offer “Strength in Style” appointments which are specifically aimed at men and women who are suffering from hair loss due to chemo. If you do decide to “go bare”, rather than wear a wig, it is important that you protect your head from the elements: wind and sun can cause significant damage to the skin.
TIP: Suburban Turban offer a range of different scarves and hats suitable for summer, winter, work, sport and sleep.
6. Mouth soreness and loss of appetite
Nutrition is key. Avoid eating acidic and rough foods that can cause irritation, such as citrus fruits, spices and crusty bread. Instead, opt for cool and soft foods: smoothies and chilled soups are great options and can be packed full of nutritional value to ensure you are hitting all four food diary points. Exercise can also help improve appetite.
TIP: Try to eat smaller, more frequent meals to sustain a constant energy intake.
7. Cognitive impairment
Problems in short-term memory and poor attention span can affect everyday tasks. Writing reminders in a notepad or on your phone can be an easy way of making sure you don’t forget key events. Physical activity is also beneficial: increased activity levels during chemo has been associated with greater cognitive performance, compared to those leading a sedentary lifestyle.
TIP: Keep a notepad by your bed, to write down anything that comes to mind.
8. Muscle wastage
Due to fatigue, reduced activity levels and the toxic effects on the body induced by chemotherapy, most people experience a decline in lean mass. This can negatively impact the carrying out of simple daily activities, which affects quality of life. Additionally, as muscle is an active tissue, a reduction in lean mass can lead to a slower metabolism, which consequently reduces longevity. Exercise and nutrition will combat this: ensuring you remain active, reaching overload and refuelling correctly with energy and protein will help maintain lean mass.
TIP: Ensure you are having an intake of protein at every meal: fish, eggs and beans are easy additions.
9. Sleep disturbances
Problems with sleep are not usually a direct side effect but can result from the steroids prescribed as part of your treatment. Establish a regular routine and minimise (or shorten) daytime naps whilst being mindful to avoid electronics, exercise and eating before bed. Your resistance training sessions at CP+R will help promote better sleep: the breakdown of muscle increases the need for recovery, promoting a state of relaxation and more undisturbed sleep patterns.
TIP: Before turning to sleeping tablets, try avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the evenings and instead opt for warm milk or camomile tea.
10. Sex and fertility issues
Some side effects can make having sex difficult and reduce drive, although most are short-term and should improve once treatment has finished. Both men and women can still be fertile during chemotherapy and it may be possible to conceive, therefore it is crucial that contraception is used during and a few months after treatment to avoid harming a developing foetus. Unfortunately, some chemotherapy drugs can cause infertility, however, action prior to treatment can be taken to preserve reproductive cells for later use. Ask your oncologist or consultant for guidance.
TIP: Communication is essential: try to talk to your partner about how you are feeling and find other ways to be intimate with each other.
Do remember to always ensure you report any new or worsening side effects to your consultant or oncologist and remember that whilst side effects can often be upsetting, the long-term benefits of chemotherapy will generally outweigh them.