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Chemotherapy side effects: what they are and how to deal with them

Chemotherapy effectively treats many types of cancer but, just like other treatments, often causes side effects. The side effects of chemotherapy, as well as those of radiation and hormone treatments, differ from person to person and depend on the type of cancer, the location, the drugs used, the dose taken, and the person’s overall health. Chemotherapy acts on active cells, that is, cells that grow and divide into more cells of the same type. Cancer cells are active, but so are some healthy cells, which include, for example, cells in the blood, mouth, digestive system, and hair follicles. So, chemo causes side effects precisely because it goes to damage these healthy cells.

Specifically, the most common effects of chemotherapy are as follows:

  • Fatigue;
  • Hair loss;
  • Easy bruising and bleeding;
  • Infections;
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count);
  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Constipation;
  • Diarrhea;
  • Changes in appetite;
  • Peripheral neuropathy or other problems such as numbness, tingling, or pain;
  • Weight changes;
  • Changes in libido and other sex-related problems;
  • Skin and nail problems;
  • Mouth and throat sores.

Of course, no person experiences all the side effects of chemotherapy at the same time, and some even experience-if any-very few. There are also some side effects that chemotherapy can cause in the long run, such as heart or nerve damage or fertility problems, but not many people experience these.

 

How long chemo side effects last: some useful information.

Although the side effects of chemotherapy may be unpleasant, a cost-benefit assessment must be made, that is, they must be considered for their ability to kill cancer cells.

As for the duration of side effects , many of them disappear fairly quickly once treatment is over because cells no longer exposed to the chemotherapy drug resume normal division. This is the case, for example, with alopecia, or hair loss. However, some–called late effects–can take months or even years to disappear completely.

As we have already stated, chemotherapy causes long-term side effects, which may occur over the lifetime of those undergoing treatment. These are side effects that can cause problems with the heart, lungs, kidneys, or reproductive organs, and in some of these cases the damage done can be permanent.

Nonetheless, it should be considered that many of the negative effects of chemotherapy on the body can be effectively managed by simple measures. Essential, for this reason, is to talk clearly with one’s cancer care team, who may change the medicine or treatment schedule and may also suggest ways for the patient to reduce the pain or discomfort he or she experiences from the side effects of chemotherapy.