Your experience as you go through chemotherapy treatment will be as individual as you are. We have available resources to help prepare you for what you may experience. You may have some concerns, questions and side effects common for many people undergoing chemotherapy treatment. We are always available to answer additional questions you may have.
For many people, hair loss is one of the most difficult aspects of chemotherapy treatment. Hair loss with chemotherapy may be all over your body, not just on your scalp. Sometimes your eyelashes, eyebrows, armpit, pubic and other body hair also falls out. Some chemotherapy drugs are more likely than others to cause hair loss, and different doses can cause anything from a mere thinning to complete baldness. Most often, hair loss begins about two to three weeks after starting chemotherapy. Most of the time, hair loss from chemotherapy is temporary and your hair will begin to grow back after you stop chemotherapy. It usually takes from two to three months to see the change from no hair to some hair.
You may want to cover your head with a wig, scarf, hat or turban, or you may not want to cover your head at all. Do what makes you most comfortable. Many insurance companies will cover the cost of a wig with a prescription from your doctor. The American Cancer Society also has programs that can provide a wig for little or no cost.
Nutrition, Appetite and Taste Changes
Nutrition is especially important during cancer treatment. Good nutrition helps promote a healthy immune system, which helps you avoid infections, feel better, stay stronger and recover more quickly. During chemotherapy treatment, you may experience taste and appetite changes and a heightened sensitivity to odors.
Reflux is a common symptom experienced by many people receiving chemotherapy. With reflux you may have burping or a burning sensation that may worsen nausea. We encourage you to eat what appeals to you during this time and to drink enough fluids (eight to 10 eight-ounce glasses per day, or more if you have a fever or diarrhea).
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are unpleasant side effects of some chemotherapy medications. To help alleviate nausea, consider a clear liquid diet or cold bland foods. Make sure to sip fluids often to prevent dehydration. Minimize sights, sounds or smells that can initiate nausea. It’s also important to take anti-nausea medication as instructed.
Diarrhea can be a side effect of some chemotherapy treatments. Left untreated, diarrhea can result in weakness, dehydration, weight loss, skin soreness and poor nutrition. If you experience diarrhea, try over-the-counter remedies. If these are ineffective, contact your doctor. You should also increase your fluid intake to six eight-ounce glasses per day.
Some people receiving chemotherapy treatment may also experience constipation, which means having hard or infrequent stools, or difficulty in having a bowel movement. If this occurs during your treatment, please let your doctor know so we can determine the cause.
As a side effect of treatment, some people receiving chemotherapy experience mouth sores or discomfort when swallowing. Mouth sores occur because chemotherapy destroys not only cancer cells but also rapidly dividing cells, such as those that line your mouth and esophagus. Please call your doctor should you develop painful mouth sores, white patches in your mouth or on your tongue, or if you have difficulty swallowing. A special mouth rinse may be prescribed.
Skin and Nail Problems
Minor skin and nail problems are common side effects of chemotherapy. If you have itchy, dry skin, use baking soda in your bath water and apply it instead of deodorant. Take any medications for itching as prescribed by your doctor.
Some chemotherapy treatments can cause skin changes including skin discoloration. In most cases, skin changes disappear soon after the treatment ends. It’s important to limit your sun exposure by staying out of the direct sun as much as you can, blocking the sun with at least SPF 30 sunscreen, clothing or zinc oxide and wearing a hat when outside.
Nail problems tend to be minor. Talk to your doctor or nurse before using nail strengtheners or seeing a manicurist. Reduce the risk of infection by wearing gloves when gardening, washing dishes, or performing work around the house, and be careful when you trim your nails or cuticles.
Fatigue is a common side effect of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which can affect your ability to produce red blood cells, causing anemia. To help you conserve your energy, note the times of day when you are most tired and plan around them. If you begin to feel more tired than normal, tell your doctor.
Chemotherapy can make your body less able to fight off infection because it reduces the number of white blood cells (infection fighters, also known as neutrophils) in your body. To help prevent infections, try the following tips:
- Know your nadir, the time during your chemotherapy cycle when you have the fewest white blood cells. The length of your nadir, and when it occurs, depends on the drugs you are taking.
- Keep your hands clean.
- Don’t eat uncooked or undercooked meat or fish. You may also be told not to eat raw vegetables or thin-skinned or unpeeled fruits during your nadir.
- Your body is less able to fight off colds, measles and other contagious illnesses, so try to avoid people who are sick and stay away from crowds during your nadir,
- Wear gloves when you work around germs and dirt (when gardening or handling garbage) and have someone else clean a pet’s litter box.
If you are have having a hard time fighting infection, medication may be prescribed to help prevent infection or help your body make new white blood cells.
Some types of chemotherapy can reduce the ability of your blood to clot by reducing the number of platelets (clotting agents) in your blood. This increases your risk of bruising or bleeding. Your risk is greatest during nadir, the period of each treatment cycle when your blood count is at its lowest.