The most common cancer treatments today are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. A cancer patient may receive one or a combination of these or other types of treatment. The type of treatment you receive depends on the type and stage of cancer.
Ask your health care team about the best ways to prepare for your treatment sessions. Find out if you need lab work. Your provider may have advice or give you a prescription for medication that can help you avoid side effects such as nausea.
Prepare a Treatment Bag
Many cancer patients prepare a special tote bag or backpack to bring along to treatment sessions. Include items that will provide comfort and entertainment during treatment, such as:
- Sweater and comfortable clothes.
- Music player, headphones and favorite music.
- Blanket and pillow.
- Reading materials.
- Crossword puzzles or other activities.
- Deck of cards.
- Lip balm.
- Body lotion.
- Calming teas like peppermint.
- Notepad or journal and pen.
- Bootie socks.
- Cookies, crackers or other snacks.
- Stress ball.
Common Treatment Side Effects
Some treatments bring side effects. Knowing what you might experience can help you feel more in control. Talk with your health care team about any side effects you could have. Medical care can often lessen the effects and problems associated with treatment. Ask about what to avoid eating or drinking during your treatment. Also, Chemocare.com provides information on the aftereffects of chemotherapy drugs and how to manage those effects.
The following is an overview of the three most common types of cancer treatment and some of the possible side effects.
Improved surgical methods now help limit damage to normal tissue. They have also reduced risks and side effects. Surgery is often used to find out if cancer cells are present such as with a biopsy. It is also used to remove tumors. Sometimes surgery is done to rebuild (reconstruct) or reshape physical changes. A medical device (port) is sometimes surgically placed under the skin. The port can be used to give medications.
Possible side effects of surgery:
- Movement limitations.
- Inability to do some activities on a temporary or long-term basis.
- Changes in sexual function or fertility.
- Changes in ability to judge, learn or remember (such as after brain surgery).
- Swelling or lymphedema.
Chemotherapy uses medications to kill cells and stop cell growth. These medicines can be given as an oral tablet. They can also be given by injection or through a vein (with an IV) or a port. The medicines get into the bloodstream and circulate through the entire body. Side effects occur because the medicines affect both cancerous and non-cancerous cells. Side effects can occur when healthy cells are damaged.
Chemotherapy is done in repeated cycles to allow the body to recover between doses. High doses or repeated chemotherapy may cause side effects. Many of the medicines interfere with the rapidly growing cells of the body. These cells may be in the stomach and intestinal lining, hair, skin, nails or bone marrow.
Before chemo: Talk with your health care team about what side effects you might expect. Chemotherapy treatments can cause nausea and vomiting. Ask your health care provider about anti-nausea medications that may help. Some patients recommend not eating your favorite foods right before or after treatments. Later, when it's important to rebuild your appetite and weight, you might not feel like eating those foods again.
Talk with your health care provider if you want to have children in the future. Be sure to let your provider know if there is any possibility that you or your partner could be pregnant. Chemotherapy can harm an unborn child. Livestrong Fertility offers reproductive information, support and hope to cancer patients and survivors whose medical treatments present the risk of infertility. Livestrong Fertility may be able to help reduce fertility preservation costs.
Possible side effects of chemo:
- Decreased immunity.
- Mouth sores.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Hair loss.
- Skin rashes.
- Bruising and bleeding.
After chemo: Chemotherapy affects people in different ways. Some have very few side effects, while others have more. Side effects have nothing to do with how well the treatment is working. Side effects usually begin to improve or go away as normal tissues repair themselves. This may start about three weeks after the treatment. Hair can start to grow back even before the treatment is finished.
Chemotherapy may temporarily affect the ability to concentrate. The result may be mild forgetfulness. This is sometimes called chemo fog or chemo brain. Calendars, lists and messages on voice mail can be helpful if this happens to you.
Always tell your health care provider about any side effects that occur during chemotherapy, including extreme fatigue, bleeding, numbness and tingling in limbs (neuropathy), difficulty breathing, eating or drinking problems, problems with urination or bowel movements, memory loss and inability to focus, pain, infection and fever.
Radiation therapy is the use of X-rays directed at a tumor. This might be done externally (on the surface of the skin) or internally (inside the body). The doses may be high or low. They are not the same as the X-rays used to take a picture of a tumor.
Lead shields are used to protect vital organs during treatment. This minimizes radiation damage to normal tissues that surround the cancer. It also helps direct treatment to the same location each time.
Damage to normal cells or structures of the body can cause radiation side effects. The health care provider will try to limit radiation damage to those areas that are close to the tumor during treatment. Still, some healthy tissue and organs may be involved in an effort to be certain all of the cancer is treated.
Before radiation: Talk with your provider if there is a desire to have children in the future. Decisions about fertility preservation options should be made before starting radiation treatment. Women need to let the health care team know if there is any possibility of pregnancy because radiation could harm a fetus.
Ask your health care provider to discuss side effects that radiation therapy could bring for your type of cancer. Following treatment, report any side effects to your provider as soon as possible. Early medical care for side effects is very important.
Possible side effects of radiation to head:
- Hair loss and changes to hair.
- Redness and irritation in the mouth.
- Dry mouth, trouble swallowing or changes in taste.
- Changes to teeth, gums, mouth or throat.
Possible side effects of radiation to body:
- Bone growth changes in children who are still developing.
- Dry, irritated or reddened skin.
- Nausea, vomiting or bowel changes.
- Eating and digestive problems.
- Irritation of the bladder.
- Effects on fertility or sexual functioning.
- Breast size changes.
- Lung fibrosis (stiffening or scarring).
- Osteoporosis or bone loss.
General side effects of radiation:
- Fatigue or weakness.
- Swelling and soreness.
- Cough or shortness of breath.
- Low white blood cell counts or low levels of platelets (rare).
- Emotional effects.
Hormone therapy is a treatment that adds, blocks or removes hormones. During this type of treatment, surgery may be needed to remove a gland that makes a certain hormone. In some cases, hormones may be given to adjust low hormone levels. Synthetic hormones or other drugs may be used to block the body’s natural hormones in order to slow or stop the growth of certain cancers. This may be done for prostate and breast cancer. Talk with your health care provider about the benefits and risks (such as osteoporosis) of this type of treatment. If you want to get pregnant after undergoing this type of treatment, ask about risks and recommended waiting periods.
Cancer Treatment and Fatigue
Keep Track of What Happens Between Medical Appointments
- Write down dates of side effects and symptoms as well as what you experienced.
- Note how long the symptom lasted and what did and did not help.
- If you develop pain or other serious concerns, contact your doctor right away or go to the hospital emergency room.
Fatigue or feeling physically exhausted is a very common side effect of cancer treatment. You may have no energy to do things that are important to you. Fatigue can also affect you mentally and emotionally.
The causes of fatigue can include physical problems such as pain, stress, anemia or the side effects of treatment. Sometimes the cause is emotional such as depression. Other times, the cause might not be clear. Yet, fatigue can usually be successfully medically managed.
Tell your health care provider if you are fatigued. Describe your level of fatigue by using terms like mild, moderate or severe. Your health care team will try to find out what is causing the fatigue so they can provide the best treatment to help relieve it.
Dealing With Treatment Side Effects
It’s very important to talk with your health care team about reactions to or side effects from treatment. Ask if your symptom is related to your treatment.
Your health care team members can:
- Tell you how to deal with a medical emergency such as a fever.
- Provide information about your specific cancer treatment plan.
- Describe risks of treatment and possible side effects.
- Help you manage side effects.
- Manage pain medically.
- Identify specialized care that may be needed.
- Refer you to other health care providers.
- Create a plan for follow-up health care when treatment ends.