Dealing with chemotherapy side effects

November 12, 2012

Dealing with chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy is the recognised treatment for cancer and involves the administration of strong medication designed to rid the body of cancer cells. There are over one hundred chemotherapy drugs several of which are generally used in combination depending on the individual diagnosis.

Unfortunately, whilst chemotherapy is an effective treatment for cancer – destroying cancer cells everywhere they may be present – it also destroys healthy cells. The most commonly affected healthy cells are those affecting production of blood, those in the hair follicles (which is why cancer patients typically experience hair loss), cells in the mouth and digestive system.

Not all cancer patients experience chemotherapy side effects and those who do may experience a wide range of symptoms ranging which may be very mild or extremely severe. Common chemotherapy side effects include -

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Anaemia

  • Fatigue

  • Multiple infections

  • Mouth ulcers

Learning to live with chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy treatment may well improve the survival rate for cancer patients, or even cure the disease completely. However the side effects which are often the result of treatment may be extremely unpleasant and debilitating. Learning to deal with chemotherapy side effects will make coping with the treatment regime much easier.

Nausea and vomiting

As many as 80% of chemotherapy patients will experience nausea and/or vomiting as a result of their treatment program. Some drugs, such as Cisplatin, cause more severe symptoms than others.

Your medical practitioner will usually prescribe anti-emetic drugs to deal with the nausea and vomiting, some doctors may also suggest a course of electro-acupuncture which has been found to be beneficial for some patients.

In addition patients should avoid situations which are likely to make them feel nauseous knowing that the unpleasant side effects will soon pass.

Anaemia and fatigue

One chemotherapy side effect which has a ‘double whammy’ result is the reduction of red blood cells – which causes both anaemia and fatigue. When there are insufficient red blood cells in the circulatory system there is a corresponding drop in the availability of oxygen for the cells involved in normal bodily functions. It is this lack of oxygen which causes the fatigue experienced by many cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. As many as 96% of cancer patients experience extreme fatigue during and post chemotherapy treatment.

Anaemia may be treated by your doctor by the prescribing of medication or even a blood transfusion; this should also improve levels of energy. Undertaking short periods of exercise is also beneficial and may improve energy levels. Cancer patients should be careful to get the rest that they need, reserving their energy for fighting the disease.


A chemotherapy side effect which means the production of fewer white blood cells may also mean patients are at higher risk of infection. Practising good hygiene, something we should all do, is especially important for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment. It is also advisable for vulnerable patients to avoid large crowds of people, to refrain from nail biting and picking, and protect skin as far as possible. Any sign of infection should be quickly referred to your medical practitioner.

Mouth ulcers

Mouth ulcers can be a very painful chemotherapy side effect. Taking preventative steps may help reduce the frequency of these uncomfortable sores.

  • Brush teeth at least twice a day using a soft brush

  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, spicy and acidic foods

  • Use a salt water and baking soda mouthwash at least four times a day

  • Patients undergoing rapid infusion 5-fluorouracil or Alkeran have benefited from holding ice or chilled water in their mouth from just before the start of treatment until thirty minutes afterward.

Learning, in advance, how to deal with the side effects of any cancer treatment will do much to improve what is often and exhausting and debilitating experience.

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