Coping With the Side Effects of Chemotherapy


Patient Education

Coping With the Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Cancer is one of the most feared diseases in the world. Treating cancer is difficult and more challenging because it’s not a single disease, but rather a group of diseases. In total, there are more than 100 different types of cancers. Cancers have many known and unknown causes, so no one strategy can prevent them. Different cancers may need different treatment modalities and more often than not, will require a combination regimen to achieve good cancer outcomes. Treating cancer is further complicated by individual patient and tumor factors. Each patient has different physiological responses to treatment, for example, metabolism of drugs and individual sets of beliefs and cultural differences. Every patients’ tumor may also respond differently to the same drugs owing to the differences in tumor biology and heterogeneity. This is further complicated as tumors are known to change/mutate after each treatment exposure. 

One of the treatments for cancer is chemotherapy. Chemotherapeutic drugs that are used to destroy cancer cells are potent, and while they can be effective in fighting cancer, they also come with a host of potentially challenging side effects.

Chemotherapy drugs are usually given intravenously (through plastic tubing), and they can be given as a single agent or in combination with other chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy is also often used in combination with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy and surgery. 

The side effects of chemotherapy treatment

Chemotherapy side effects depend on the type of drug, the dose, how it is given, and the length of treatment. While everyone's experience with chemotherapy will be different, there are some common side effects that people may experience.

Common chemotherapy side effects include: 

  • nausea and vomiting 
  • hair loss (newer generation may not affect hair loss)
  • fatigue 
  • loss of appetite 
  • constipation 
  • diarrhoea 
  • mouth sores 
  • skin rash or dryness 
  • neuropathy (tingling, numbness, or pain in the hands and feet) 
  • increased risk of infection 

Anyone who has undergone chemotherapy can attest to the fact that it can be a challenging experience at times. While the side effects may be mild or severe, they go away when chemotherapy treatment ends. You can talk to your doctor about ways to manage the discomfort and pain. It is also comforting to have loved ones near for support on your chemotherapy or other cancer treatment journey.

Tips to cope with the sides effects and pain of chemotherapy

Whether you're just starting your chemotherapy journey or you're well into it, here are a few tips to ease some of the side effects and help you cope:

1. Give yourself plenty of time to rest

Chemotherapy can make you feel exhausted, so take it slow, listen to your body and give it the respite and recuperation it needs. You should also take breaks during chemotherapy treatment to rest and allow your body to recover. 

2. Consume plenty of nutritious foods and fluids

Eat healthy foods and stay hydrated. Chemotherapy can weaken your immune system, so it's important to eat foods that will boost your energy and keep your body healthy. 

3. Combat nausea with small meals

An empty stomach can worsen your symptoms. Eat a small, light meal or snack before your chemotherapy appointment and most importantly, have what sounds good to you. Starches like rice, bread and potatoes are generally well tolerated. Oncologists would usually prescribe anti-nausea medications together with  chemotherapy, so do take them as needed.

4. Fluids can help with both diarrhoea and constipation

Non-caffeinated fluids can help to prevent constipation and to replenish lost fluids from diarrhoea. Take a stool softener for constipation, not a laxative. For diarrhoea, do not overuse over the counter medication and it is best to call your doctor if you have more than four watery stools in a day or blood in your stool.

5. Take special oral care for mouth sores

Mouth sores occur because chemotherapy not only destroys cancer cells, but also rapidly dividing cells, such as those that line your mouth and oesophagus. Use a soft toothbrush and ask your doctor or pharmacist to prescribe a special mouth rinse since most of the in-store products contain alcohol. 

6. Early detection and treatment is best to control neuropathy symptoms and prevent further nerve damage

Dysfunction of the nerves can happen to some individuals, with the tips of fingers and toes being the most commonly affected areas. Wear soft, loose cotton socks and comfortable, padded shoes for pain, tingling and to avoid sores. If you have burning pain, cool the affected area with cold water for 15 minutes twice a day. Massage can also help improve circulation, stimulate nerves and provide temporary pain relief.

7. Speak to your doctor about what to expect regarding hair loss

Not all chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss, and some lose relatively little hair while others may lose hair on their head, face and other parts of the body. Do what makes you feel the most comfortable during this transition and bear in mind that your hair will begin to grow back after you stop chemotherapy treatment. Additional measures such as scalp cooling devices may retard hair loss during chemotherapy, so do speak to your oncologist about your options.

By following these tips, you can help ease some chemotherapy side effects and make treatment more tolerable. 

Cancer pain or treatment related side effects can also be better managed with professional and experienced doctors by your side. At OncoCare, we believe expert knowledge means better care for cancer. As one of the largest private oncology practices in Singapore with seven clinics located at premier hospitals, we offer comprehensive and integrated specialty care for all our patients. Book a consultation with one of our specialists to find out more about chemotherapy treatment.

“Expert knowledge means better care for cancer”

Written by:
Dr Tan Chee Seng
MBBS (Singapore)
MRCP (United Kingdom)