Chemotherapy is one of the most common and strong course of treatment for cancer. However, did you know that along with treating cancer, chemotherapy comes with many side effects as well? These chemo drugs are powerful enough to kill fastly growing cancer cells, they can harm the healthy cells in your body too, which then leads to a number of side effects. The severity of these side effects varies from person to person, depending on their health condition, age and the type of chemotherapy. While most side effects go away after this treatment process ends, but some might stay forever or for sometime even after the chemotherapy has ended. Make sure to talk about the side effects you are experiencing with your doctor. In some cases, depending on the reactions of your body, your doctor might feel the need to adjust the type and dose of chemotherapy.
Some chemotherapy drugs can damage cells in the heart, kidneys, bladder, lungs, and the nervous system. In some situations, you can take medications along with the chemo to protect your body’s normal and healthy cells. There are other treatments to help in easing the side effects. Doctors try to give chemo with high levels and doses to make it strong enough to treat cancer, while keeping side effects at a minimum. They also try to avoid prescribing multiple drugs that have the same side effects. Onlymyhealth editorial team spoke to Dr. Ashok Vaid, Chairman, Medical and Haemato Oncology, Cancer Institute, Medanta - The Medicity, about the side effects of chemotherapy.
Side effects of chemotherapy
According to Dr. Ashok, here are the main side effects of chemotherapy:
1. Low blood count
Regular blood count check by an expert is one of the most important steps of chemotherapy. This is essential because the drugs can harm cells in the bone marrow, where red blood cells are produced. Without enough red blood cells in the body to transport oxygen to tissues, there is a high risk of anemia. Therefore, low blood count is a common side effect of chemotherapy.
2. Diarrhea and mouth ulcers
Some of the most common side effects of chemotherapy affect digestion. You might experience diarrhea and talk to your doctor for the same. Dry mouth and mouth sores that form on the tongue, lips, gums, or in the throat can make swallowing and chewing very difficult. Mouth sores also put you at a risk of bruising, bleeding and infection.
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3. Hair loss
Hair loss is the most common side effect of chemotherapies for treating cancer. Many chemo drugs have an impact on hair follicles and can lead to major hair loss within a few weeks of the first session. Hair loss can occur anywhere on the body, from head to eyebrows, and from eyelashes to your legs. Hair loss is temporary and new hair growth happens within a few weeks after the treatment process ends. One can have effects on the skin as well.
4. Low immunity
Chemotherpy can also lower your white blood cell count, which results in low immunity as these cells are important for the immune system. They help in preventing diseases and combating infections. Symptoms are not always noticeable, but you might find yourself getting sick then you generally do. Make sure to take precautions to avoid exposure to viruses, bacteria, and other germs if you are on chemo drugs. These drugs are also toxic to certain organs, so they can damage the lungs, heart, liver and kidneys.
5. Nausea and vomitting
These powerful chemo drugs can also harm healthy cells along the gastrointestinal tract. Nausea and vomitting are common symptoms of chemotherapy. You can talk to your doctor about antinausea medicines to reduce the effect during chemotherapy. Since the past few years, side effects such as nausea and vomitting have been controlled by experts efficiently.
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6. Low appetite
Side effects of chemo on the digestive system include loss of appetite and feeling fuller even when you haven't eaten much. Due to this, you might experience weight loss, weakness, and less energy in the body. It is important to add healthy foods in your diet. These side effects are well understood and doctors take precautions to counter them, but there can be irreversible damage to vital organs in very rare cases.
So, these were the main side effects of chemotherapy. Dr. Ashok said, "Chemo drugs that are used are different types of drugs and they have a profile of side effects. Broadly, chemotherapy is meant to kill the living tumor cells in the body and it has to be strong enough. These drugs are not targeted or precised, therefore they have some collateral damage on the body tissues."
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