When you hear the word chemotherapy, images of cancer patients going through grueling treatments come to mind. The media has conditioned us to believe that chemotherapy is something to be feared, and some people even avoid treatment because of the negative connotations associated with the word. However, chemotherapy isn’t always seen as a last resort; in fact, it’s often the best first option in fighting cancer. Chemotherapy is a common treatment for several types of cancer because it targets fast-growing cells like cancer cells. It does this by targeting fast-growing cells like your hair follicles and bone marrow. When you undergo chemotherapy, your doctor will administer one or more drugs that interfere with cell division in order to stop the growth of cancerous cells while also protecting healthy cells from being affected. Read on to learn more about how chemotherapy affects your body, what side effects you might experience during treatment, and how to manage them—so you can get back to living life as soon as possible after finishing your treatment plan.
What to Expect When Going Through Chemotherapy
If you’re facing chemotherapy, you’ll be in a unique position where you’ll have to navigate the physical effects of the drugs as well as the emotional stress of receiving treatment. The intensity of chemotherapy treatments and their side effects vary from person to person. Some people experience mild sickness and fatigue, whereas others deal with more severe symptoms, like hair loss or difficulty sleeping. Depending on your situation, your doctor might recommend several ways to help ease the side effects of chemotherapy. These can include changes to your diet, supplements, or medications. The best way to prepare for chemotherapy is to know what to expect and be mindful of your body. Be sure to communicate openly with your doctor if you experience any unusual side effects so they can help you address them as soon as possible.
Hair loss is common during chemotherapy, and it’s often the first symptom people notice. Hair loss can be mild, resulting in a few stray hairs falling out, or severe, causing you to lose all of your hair. Hair loss can be anywhere on the body, including the scalp, armpits, eyelashes, and pubic area. Chemo targets rapidly growing cells, such as cancer cells and hair follicles. When all of the hair follicles are gone, hair won’t grow back. While this can be distressing, remember that once you’re done with chemotherapy, your hair will regrow. The hair loss associated with chemotherapy is considered permanent, which means you can’t prevent it.
Nausea and Vomiting
Some people experience nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy. Nausea can come and go, or it can be a constant feeling, making it difficult to eat. Nausea can last for hours or days at a time. To reduce nausea, your doctor may prescribe a medication that helps control vomiting or nausea. It’s also important to eat small meals throughout the day, avoid foods that make you sick, and drink plenty of water. Avoiding caffeine and staying hydrated can also help reduce nausea.
Chemotherapy can make you feel incredibly tired. Fatigue is a normal side effect of chemotherapy, and it’s something many patients experience. It can also happen when you’re fighting an illness, taking antibiotics, or if you’re pregnant. You can help reduce fatigue by doing things like getting enough sleep, managing stress, and exercising. You can also try acupuncture, yoga, or massage therapy—these activities can help you relax, which can help you sleep better.
Skin Irritation and Discoloration
While chemotherapy is targeting cancer cells, it’s also attacking healthy cells, including skin cells. This can cause rashes and discoloration on your skin, including redness, itching, and changes in pigmentation. You can reduce the risk of skin irritation and discoloration by staying hydrated and wearing moisturizer with SPF, especially during the summer. Be sure to let your doctor know if you notice any changes in your skin so they can help you address it quickly.
While chemotherapy is often associated with negative symptoms, it’s important to understand that many people can go through treatment without experiencing any side effects at all. It’s also important to know that the side effects of chemotherapy aren’t permanent—they’ll go away once you finish treatment. Not only can you survive chemotherapy, you can thrive.
Dr. Ronald Bissell is a retired surgeon, author of 6 books on Personal and Spiritual Growth, writer of numerous articles and facilitator of workshops. He has been giving talks to help people with life-threatening diseases for the past 10 years. After three years of chemotherapy he recently had a bone marrow transplant to treat Multiple Myeloma. His work now involves helping others with life-threatening diseases as well as teaching people how to live their best lives without fear or anxiety.