Breast cancer patients and other cancer patients are often bogged down by horror stories associated with chemotherapy. This may leave them very anxious and may leave them with a “feeling of dread”. Feeling this way is perfectly natural especially if you are awaiting treatment, and are not well-informed about what to expect when it comes to the adverse side effects of chemotherapy. But it is important to know that while there may be some truth to the stories, many may have been blown out of proportion. Hence, being informed is the first to differentiating between facts and fanatic-perceptions. So, equip yourself with the right knowledge from the right people. Understand what will happen to your body and what to expect, and take the necessary informed decisions for chemotherapy side effects management.
Chemotherapy Side Effects: The Why
It is important to be both physically and mentally prepared to face the side effects of chemotherapy. We have elaborated upon the common chemotherapy side effects. It is also important to know why chemotherapy results in such side-effects and how to avoid side effects of chemotherapy.
What is chemotherapy? Chemotherapy is essentially a barrage of drugs that works to kill active cells i.e. fast-growing cells. These drugs course through the body and they cannot differentiate between the cancerous cells and normal body cells. Hence, they may attack and kill certain fast-growing healthy cells to some extent. Cells of the hair follicles, mouth lining, bone marrow, digestive tract, reproductive system, are particularly susceptible. In extreme circumstances chemo may damage cells of the heart, nervous system, lungs and bladder. This “attacking” mode of the chemo drugs results in the typical side effects such as nausea, weight changes, hair loss, etc.
Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer
The nature and intensity of the side effects may vary as per the type of cancer, so breast cancer treatment may make some side effects more pronounced. Breast cancer patients may experience side effects such as anaemia (low red blood cell count), menopausal effects, nail and hair changes, vaginal dryness, bone loss or osteoporosis etc.
How Long do Side Effects Last?
Most side effects go away soon after the treatment is stopped. It all depends on how your body withstands the cancer treatment, and how much damage is really done. It is important to know that some side effects may last a life-time in extremely severe cases, for example, damage to lungs, heart or kidneys. But there’s still hope, some part of all this is still in your hands, you must maintain your overall health by closely consulting with your healthcare team- proper nutrition, mild exercise, emotional support from family and friends can go a long way in making the journey better.
Most of the side effects of chemotherapy like hair loss, low RBC/WBC count, changes in nails, vaginal dryness end as the treatment stops. To regrow, hair requires almost 6 - 8 months or even more after that last chemotherapy cycle. This phase could also be a difficult time, and the best way to cope with it is to go for a customised wig.
The positive part is that, not all people experience all these side effects. Your body may react to the drugs differently compared to someone else, and hence you may end up experiencing fewer side effects. Often, at the outset, you will engage in a discussion about the nature and type of chemotherapy treatment and your cancer care team will weigh the chemotherapy outcomes versus the side effects. Make sure you share all your current medications and concerns with the team (even herbal and vitamin supplements) since the course of treatment may be altered depending on your inputs. Also, feel free to discuss and seek clarity about what side effects to expect, how long they will last, how intense they may be, and when should you report any changes in side effects. Your cancer care team may also prescribe some treatments specifically for the side effects, to make them lessen or go away. Modern medicine gives us many options not only to treat the cancer, but also to manage the side-effects.
Dealing with chemotherapy side effects is a consultative process between the patient, supporting people and healthcare team. Be sure to engage in candid and clear discussions to be able to get the best of the treatment, while managing the side effects and ensuring a better quality of life while you fight with your might and will!