Chemotherapy is among the most common treatments offered for cancer, both for curative and for palliation purposes. However, its use is associated with both physical and emotional effects on the patient and, therefore, the caregiver.
Different people experience the subsequent physical effects of chemotherapy in different ways. Some are almost knocked out, while others manage to live almost normally. Most commonly, the patient feels sick during and for some time after the sessions, recovering quickly to near-normal between them.
On the other hand, emotional swings are also common, which is not always related to physical well-being.
What are the physical impacts?
Some physical effects of chemotherapy are discussed below:
Severe fatigue can make it significantly harder to lead a normal life; the best way to deal with this is to rest until the tiredness subsides.
In a nutshell, such tiredness is caused by many things: the drug’s effects on the body, the fight between the immune system and the cancer, disturbed sleep, as well as low blood cell counts.
Ways to cope with tiredness include reducing the workload to the bare minimum and asking for help with daily chores. Get someone trusted to care for children for some time after each treatment. If that is not possible, engage them in some quiet activities and enlist their cooperation by explaining that you are tired or unwell, without frightening them.
If you have trouble sleeping, pills may help and may be taken for a short while. However, the best way is to set up a regular adequate sleeping routine, stop caffeine intake and avoid exercising too close to bedtime. Short afternoon naps are allowed.
One of the easiest ways to tackle fatigue is to have regular exercise and adequate rest, as well as a balanced diet.
While there is no special diet for patients on chemotherapy, all essential nutrients should be present to prevent any deficiency from developing. In addition, it is important to correct any nutritional deficiencies.
During this period, the appetite may be markedly reduced. One way to cope with this is to eat smaller meals, but more frequently (which is also recommended in a myriad of other situations). Furthermore, have healthy snacks on hand to maintain energy levels.
Anti-sickness drugs are essential to control the nausea, and if one does not work, another may be suggested instead. Other drugs may help relieve constipation or diarrhea if necessary.
Finally, nutrition-packed drinks may be the right answer for some people. This could include enriching recipes with protein powder and energy-rich powder. Processed foods are unhealthy, in general, and should be avoided, while bland foods and fruits are preferred.
If the drug regimen is harsh or reacts with the body too hard, work may become impossible or a burdensome chore. On the other hand, some people find work a relief or distraction, and use it as a coping strategy. In any case, patients should do what suits them best.
Some ways to minimize work disruption is to work at home, change working hours to avoid peak time traffic, or to introduce flexible timing.
Paid sick leave is available to employees in many countries, and this should be availed of when needed.
Limited social activity
Having chemotherapy should not stop you from enjoying an evening out or being with friends. However, patients need to plan things in advance, such as daytime resting, avoiding strenuous tasks beforehand, and taking anti-nausea pills half an hour before eating.
If the event is more formal or scheduled, the patient could request that the chemotherapy session be shifted to another day. On the cautious side, not more than the occasional drink should be indulged in.
Having fun is one way to keep the patient’s spirits high through the treatment cycles.
Both for children and for adults, live virus vaccines are dangerous during chemotherapy since the normal immune response is substantially suppressed. Thus the vaccine virus could result in life-threatening infection. This should be kept in mind, as it may limit some holiday destinations for patients on chemotherapy.
Cancer patients on chemotherapy typically experience shock, denial, and pain or fear. Therefore, patients must learn how to cope with such feelings positively. Trained mental health consultants are good at helping in this area.
Some strategies include recognizing depression symptoms, finding positives, and practicing thankful attitudes. At the same time, feeling negative is common and natural, and only means that you need additional support to work through your emotions until you come to a place of relative tranquility.
Always try to stick with known information rather than imagining a worst-case scenario. Moreover, surround yourself with sources of positive support, such as close friends and trusted family members, medical professionals, and counselors. Talking is surprisingly effective in relieving these feelings and lifting one’s mood.
Some patients feel guilty and angry. It is important to know that cancer is not necessarily caused by your lifestyle, though it may have been among the risk factors. Patients should accept and communicate their anger once it becomes less intense, to family and friends who might otherwise be hurt by apparently unreasonable reactions. Talking about it to competent people may help work through these feelings.
Chemotherapy may be devastating in its effects and patients must be counseled beforehand how to handle the ensuing physical and emotional effects. Help should be provided where required for the best outcome to happen.
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Last Updated: Feb 4, 2019
Dr. Liji Thomas
Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.
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