Side Effects of Cancer Treatment
It is hard to limit the effects of treatment so that only cancer cells are removed or destroyed. Because treatment also damages healthy cells and tissues, it often causes unpleasant side effects.
The side effects of cancer treatment vary. They depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Also, each person reacts differently. Doctors try to plan the patient's therapy to keep side effects to a minimum and they can help with any problems that occur.
The side effects of surgery depend on the location of the tumor, the type of operation, the patient's general health, and other factors. Although patients are often uncomfortable during the first few days after surgery, this pain can be controlled with medicine. Patients should feel free to discuss pain relief with the doctor or nurse. It is also common for patients to feel tired or weak for a while. The length of time it takes to recover from an operation varies for each patient.
With radiation therapy, the side effects depend on the treatment dose and the part of the body that is treated. The most common side effects are tiredness, skin reactions (such as a rash or redness) in the treated areas, and loss of appetite. Radiation therapy also may cause a decrease in the number of white blood cells, cells that help protect the body against infection. Although the side effects of radiation therapy can be unpleasant, the doctor can usually treat or control them. It also helps to know that, in most cases, they are not permanent.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the drugs and the doses the patient receives. Generally, anticancer drugs affect cells that divide rapidly. These include blood cells, which fight infection, help the blood to clot, or carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When blood cells are affected by anticancer drugs, patients are more likely to get infections, may bruise or bleed easily, and may have less energy. Cells that line the digestive tract also divide rapidly. As a result of chemotherapy, patients may have side effects, such as loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, or mouth sores. For some patients, the doctor may prescribe medicine to help with side effects, especially with nausea and vomiting. Usually, these side effects gradually go away during the recovery period or after treatment stops.
Hair loss, another side effect of chemotherapy, is a major concern for many patients. Some chemotherapy drugs only cause the hair to thin out, while others may result in the loss of all body hair. Patients may feel better if they decide how to handle hair loss before starting treatment.
In some men and women, chemotherapy drugs cause changes that may result in a loss of fertility (the ability to have children). Loss of fertility may be temporary or permanent depending on the drugs used and the patient's age. For men, sperm banking before treatment may be a choice. Women's menstrual periods may stop, and they may have hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Periods are more likely to return in young women.
In some cases, bone marrow transplantation and peripheral stem cell support are used to replace tissue that forms blood cells when that tissue has been destroyed by the effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Hormone therapy can cause a number of side effects. Patients may have nausea and vomiting, swelling or weight gain, and, in some cases, hot flashes. In women, hormone therapy also may cause interrupted menstrual periods, vaginal dryness, and, sometimes, loss of fertility. Hormone therapy in men may cause impotence, loss of sexual desire, or loss of fertility. These changes may be temporary, long lasting, or permanent.
The side effects of biological therapy depend on the type of treatment. Often, these treatments cause flu-like symptoms such as chills, fever, muscle aches, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some patients get a rash, and some bleed or bruise easily. In addition, interleukin therapy can cause swelling. Depending on how severe these problems are, patients may need to stay in the hospital during treatment. These side effects are usually short-term; they gradually go away after treatment