15 Chemotherapy Side Effects and How To Manage Them

Most of us have heard or seen the side effects of chemotherapy in movies or through the experience of a relative. 

Cancer survivors usually talk about it as one of the biggest challenges they have to face. 

Everyone experiences adverse events differently. 

Thus, reading a list of side effects does not mean that you will have all these problems.

Still, if you’re considering chemotherapy as an option, you need to know about every possibility. 

In this article, we’re reviewing the side effects and how chemotherapy works. 

After reading this piece, you will have a list of adverse events and a few recommendations to cope with cancer therapy.

Chemotherapy for prostate cancer

Cancer in the prostate gland is a common cause of urinary symptoms in senior men. 

It is the second most common type of cancer in men, as recorded in 2018 (1). 

However, it is usually not lethal, and the survival rate is much better than other types of cancer.

Still, we shouldn’t take chances with prostate cancer

Many patients with aggressive types or advanced prostate cancer require urgent treatment, and chemotherapy is one of the options.

Chemotherapy for prostate cancer is usually reserved for metastatic prostate cancer. 

In other words, when cancer spreads to other tissues or is about to. 

Several drugs can be used for these patients. 

For example, docetaxel, estramustine, mitoxantrone, and cabazitaxel.

The bad news is that very advanced prostate cancer may become resistant to chemotherapeutic agents. 

Thus, cancer therapy is combined with anti-androgens and other methods to provide a better outcome (2).

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How chemotherapy works

Chemotherapy drugs are not limited to a single area. 

They circulate throughout the body, which is useful for metastatic cancer. 

They reach cancer cells wherever they are and kill them. But how?

Cancer cells are continually dividing, and that’s one of the reasons why they become dangerous. 

They won’t stop dividing, and the tumor keeps growing and spreading. 

Compared to cancer cells, their healthy counterparts rarely divide. 

What chemotherapy treatment does is detecting and killing any dividing cell in the organism. 

Cancer cells under active division will be destroyed in the process. 

Healthy cells will be destroyed if they are casually dividing at the moment of the treatment. Normal cells in the gastrointestinal system divide rapidly. 

That’s why gastrointestinal side effects are very common (3).

15 chemotherapy side effects

Some cancer patients report more severe symptoms than others after chemotherapy. 

They may not experience all of them at once. 

The following is a list of possible side effects after receiving chemo for prostate cancer:

1) Hair loss

This is perhaps the most widely known side effect of chemotherapy. 

These drugs affect the hair follicle and your hair growth cycle. 

You may end up with brittle and very fragile hair or a complete hair loss. 

Still, some patients never had hair loss and only experienced decreased hair volume (4).

saw-palmetto-benefits

2) Diarrhea

The gastrointestinal system cells divide rapidly and often become affected by chemotherapy. 

Up to 60% of patients under cancer therapy experience this symptom. 

10% of them suffer from severe diarrhea that may lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. 

It is also a cause of nutritional deficits, and it lasts for a few weeks after chemo (5).

3) Nausea and vomiting

Similar to hair loss, nausea and vomiting are also common side effects. 

That is because the enteric nervous system becomes affected. 

Instead of the usual bowel movement, the intestines move to the opposite side. 

Moreover, these patients often have electrolyte imbalances, causing a block of intestine movements (3). 

home remedies for nausea

Find out Home Remedies For Nausea Or Vomiting During Prostate Cancer Treatment.

4) Mouth sores

People usually do not talk about mouth sores and mucositis, but they are ubiquitous, too. 

The oral mucosa is a part of the gastrointestinal system. 

Thus, mouth sores count as gastrointestinal symptoms. 

Besides mouth sores, these patients may experience taste alterations, too. 

This depends on the chemotherapy agent, though (6).

5) Headache

Prostate cancer patients often experience headaches, especially during combined therapy. 

Patients with a history of migraines have more frequent cases of headaches. 

Their migraines become worse and become difficult to treat. 

Chemotherapy in combination with hormonal therapy increases the chance of headaches.

6) Loss of appetite

Altogether, gastrointestinal symptoms usually lead to loss of appetite. 

Nausea discourages patients from eating. 

They experience early satiation and often do not feel hungry in the first place. 

Mouth sores and taste alterations may also restrain patients from eating comfortably. 

Such loss of appetite leads to malnourishment in 40% of patients when we do not take nutritional measures (7).

7) Anemia 

Besides the gastrointestinal symptoms, the bone marrow is another tissue that divides rapidly. 

We need such rapid division to ensure a healthy level of red blood cells and hemoglobin. 

However, it makes red blood cells an easy target for chemo drugs. 

Patients under cancer treatment usually have lower levels of red blood cells and hemoglobin, in a process called anemia (8).

8) Easy bruising

Platelets are another part of the blood that becomes affected by chemo. 

The platelet count is significantly reduced in some cases. 

When this happens, the healing process becomes impaired. 

Patients suffer from easy and sometimes spontaneous bruising as well as easy bleeding.

9) Blood clotting

Some chemotherapy agents may increase the clotting ability of the blood. 

This happens with estramustine, a drug commonly used in some cases of castration-resistant prostate cancer. 

This agent links with a greater risk of thromboembolism and pulmonary embolism. 

When such agents are used, patients are previously evaluated to rule out any baseline blood clot problem (9).

10) Leukemia

After chemotherapy for prostate cancer, patients may also experience other types of cancer. 

The most common is acute myeloid leukemia

This is a type of blood cancer as a result of an injury in the bone marrow. 

It usually responds to chromosome aberrations, especially when radiation therapy and chemotherapy are combined in the same patient (10).

11) Frequent infections

Besides red blood cells and platelets, chemotherapy also affects white blood cells.

They have a significant role in defending the body against invader agents. 

When lymphocytes, natural killer cells, and other immunity components are affected, we become more susceptible to infections. 

Thus, patients during chemotherapy should guard themselves against viral and bacterial diseases.

12) Allergic reactions

Hypersensitivity to chemotherapy medication may cause an allergic reaction

Symptoms include itching, a skin rash, and swelling of the skin, lips, face, and other parts of the body. 

Severe allergic reactions may cause breathing difficulties and fever. 

That’s one of the reasons why some chemotherapeutic agents need to be administered under medical supervision. 

This type of reaction is a possibility with docetaxel and cabazitaxel (11). 

13) Fatigue

The side effects above contribute to some degree to feeling tired all the time

Anemia reduces the available oxygen to our healthy tissues, including the brain and muscles. 

Loss of appetite reduces the nutritional intake, and gastrointestinal problems may impair nutrient absorption. 

Cancer itself consumes significant energy, even when there’s a shortage. 

Thus, patients often feel fatigued, even after they have rested appropriately. 

They may also have chemo brain, a state of brain fog, and cognitive problems due to chemo agents (12).

14) Numbness or tingling

The neurologic system may also become impaired in a process known as peripheral neuropathy. 

Nerve damage caused by chemotherapy medicine leads to numbness or tingling in the skin. 

It is sometimes a burning sensation or something similar to an electric shock inside of the skin.

15) Weight loss

Cancer patients experience weight loss as a part of their disease. 

However, after chemo, weight loss can be sustained or worsened, especially in patients with severe gastrointestinal damage. 

How you can minimize side effects

Depending on what you feel, the cancer doctor may give you one of the following recommendations:

  • Patients feeling tiredness and fatigue may increase energy levels by taking a short walk. Doctors usually recommend they engage in light exercise.
  • Eating slowly, increasing the number of meals, and reducing the portions may relieve symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.
  • Some patients have prevented hair loss by wearing a cooling cap after chemo. This reduces blood flow to the scalp and reduces its exposition to chemotherapeutic agents.
  • Sucking on ice can help you relieve discomfort caused by mouth sores. It may also reduce the risk of mouth sores.
  • You should also reduce contact with bacteria and viruses by keeping your hands clean and wearing a face mask.

Treating chemotherapy side effects

Supportive therapy is available to patients depending on their chemotherapy side effects:

  • Patients with fatigue may need to treat anemia with vitamin B12 and iron supplements.
  • Nausea and vomiting may reduce with antiemetic drugs (anti-nausea medication).
  • There are effective topical medications to relieve pain caused by mouth sores.
  • Infections should be promptly treated with antibiotics.
  • Patients with tingling and other symptoms of neuropathy improve with vitamins, creams, and sometimes antidepressant or anticonvulsant therapy.

When to get medical advice

Before starting chemo, your cancer care team will be available for you to report side effects and any concerning symptoms.

It is vital to communicate your symptoms and describe them to your healthcare provider, especially if you feel they are severe and difficult to handle. 

You may require supportive therapy to cope with chemotherapy.

Coping tips during chemotherapy

  • Remember that your experience is individual and you shouldn’t compare it to anyone else.
  • Talk with your loved ones about what you feel and what makes you feel concerned.
  • Do not hesitate to look for support groups and professional help.
  • Keep close contact with your healthcare team and communicate with them.
  • Keep a diary of signs and symptoms if you have difficulty recalling them.
  • Continue with your daily activities as much as you can.
  • Remember that many things will change during chemotherapy, but these side effects are temporary.

Conclusion

Most of us have heard about the side effects of chemotherapy drugs. 

They include hair loss, alterations in blood measurements, mouth sores, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss. 

This is similar for breast cancer patients, prostate cancer patients, and other types of cancer.

Your healthcare team will be available before and after chemotherapy so you can report adverse events at any time. 

They may recommend combining medical treatment, complementary therapies, and various home remedies and lifestyle changes to help you cope with chemotherapy side effects.

Next Up

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Sources

  1. Rawla, P. (2019). Epidemiology of prostate cancer. World journal of oncology, 10(2), 63. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6497009/
  2. Mottet, N., Van den Bergh, R. C. N., Briers, E., Cornford, P., De Santis, M., Fanti, S., … & Lam, T. B. (2020). EAU-EANM-ESTRO-ESUR-SIOG Guidelines on Prostate Cancer. Eur Assoc Urol, 1-182.
  3. Escalante, J., McQuade, R. M., Stojanovska, V., & Nurgali, K. (2017). Impact of chemotherapy on gastrointestinal functions and the enteric nervous system. Maturitas, 105, 23-29. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28545907/
  4. Rubio‐Gonzalez, B., Juhász, M., Fortman, J., & Mesinkovska, N. A. (2018). Pathogenesis and treatment options for chemotherapy‐induced alopecia: a systematic review. international journal of dermatology, 57(12), 1417-1424. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ijd.13906
  5. Stein, A., Voigt, W., & Jordan, K. (2010). Chemotherapy-induced diarrhea: pathophysiology, frequency and guideline-based management. Therapeutic advances in medical oncology, 2(1), 51-63. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21789126/
  6. Sözeri, E., & Kutlutürkan, S. (2015). Taste alteration in patients receiving chemotherapy. The journal of breast health, 11(2), 81. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5351492/
  7. Gudny Geirsdottir, O., & Thorsdottir, I. (2008). Nutritional status of cancer patients in chemotherapy; dietary intake, nitrogen balance and screening. Food & nutrition research, 52(1), 1856. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19158940/
  8. Rodgers, G. M., Becker, P. S., Blinder, M., Cella, D., Chanan-Khan, A., Cleeland, C., … & Weir, A. B. (2012). Cancer-and chemotherapy-induced anemia. Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, 10(5), 628-653. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22570293/
  9. Fukui, T., Nakamura, K., Sakatani, T., Atsuta, T., Kato, T., Fukumoto, T., … & Terai, A. (2017). Low-Dose Estramustine Phosphate Monotherapy in Castration-Resistant Prostate Cancer Patients. Hinyokika kiyo. Acta urologica Japonica, 63(2), 57-62.
  10. Pedersen-Bjergaard, J. (1992). Radiotherapy-and chemotherapy-induced myelodysplasia and acute myeloid leukemia. A review. Leukemia research, 16(1), 61-65. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1732675/
  11. Picard, M. (2017). Management of hypersensitivity reactions to taxanes. Immunology and Allergy Clinics, 37(4), 679-693. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28965634/
  12. O’Regan, P., & Hegarty, J. (2017). The importance of self-care for fatigue amongst patients undergoing chemotherapy for primary cancer. European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 28, 47-55. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28478855/
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Dr Alberto Parra

Dr. Alberto Parra is a Medical Doctor and clinical researcher with extensive experience in diagnostic imaging and sports medicine. He's also interested in nutrition, fitness and family medicine, with expertise and continuing education on preventive healthcare and evidence-based medicine. He provides consultancy services to a number of individuals and entities who require medical validation of their protocols, products, supplements, and medical contents.

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