Not everyone has the same experience when they are going through chemotherapy treatments. These are just some of the most common short and long term side effects that are possible. The short term side effects are usually a direct reaction to the medication and will subside once it has been stopped. Unfortunately some of the long term side effects can only be managed and not reversed.
Nausea and Vomiting
Many chemotherapy drugs will cause nausea and vomiting. To control and prevent vomiting, many health care providers will prescribe medications to “help”. The medications will vary by the type of chemotherapy drugs that are being taken. Alternatively, you can try to manage these symptoms by eating many small meals throughout the day, drinking lemon water, avoiding spicy or greasy food, eating cool or frozen foods, and walking to get fresh air whenever possible.
Alopecia is a well-known side effect of chemo. Though it is most noticed on the head, it can occur over the whole body. Some things like scalp cooling and using gentle shampoos have been known to slightly reduce hair loss. After treatments end, hair can grow back in 1 to 2 months, maybe even as a different color or texture, but many women opt to wear a wig until their hair grows fully back.
Nerve damage can be caused by some chemotherapy drugs, and if this happens, it can be felt by a burning or shooting pain or numbness—often times in fingers or toes. This will almost always subside when treatment ends. Additionally, muscle pain or numbness can be experienced. Your healthcare provider should be contacted immediately if this is the case. The treatments may be able to be adjusted to ease the pain, or they may opt to prescribe pain relievers.
A number of chemotherapy drugs can cause damage to fingernails and toenails. The nails could develop ridges, become brittle and sore, get more pigmented, or even fall off. Like hair loss, these nail problems are short term. It has been noted that keeping nails shorter during treatments can make nail care easier.
Chemotherapy in the chest has the potential to damage the lungs, especially for those who have also received radiation. Those who are older adults or have a history of lung disease will be at risk for additional lung problems.
Chemotherapy done in the chest can lead to heart problems, especially for those who are over 65 years of age, those who received treatment as a child for Hodgkin lymphoma, and those who got higher doses of chemo. The most common heart conditions are arrhythmia, coronary artery disease, and congestive heart failure. Hypertension may also occur with these conditions, so working closely with a doctor is vital to long term health.
Oral and Dental Health Problems
Tooth enamel can actually be affected by chemotherapy, as well as long term dental problems. High doses of radiation to the head and neck may alter tooth development, cause gum disease, and lower saliva production. Steroid medications can increase the risk of eye problems like cataracts. Regular dental and vision appointments should be made so that these specialists can intervene if any problems do arise.
Many cancer treatments can cause a woman to have symptoms of menopause. Those who experience menopause brought on by cancer treatments may experience worse symptoms. Menstrual periods may or may not return, or may be light. For men, they may also experience symptoms similar to menopause. Additionally, they may experience infertility, as some treatments can affect the endocrine system or reproductive organs. Radiation therapy to the neck and head may also lower hormone levels and cause changes to the thyroid.
Spinal Cord, Brain, and Nerve Problems
This will include hearing loss, increased risk of stroke, and nervous system side effects. Learning, memory, and attention difficulties in adults and children. These cognitive problems may include disorientation and mental fog, difficulty with spatial orientation, trouble paying attention, concentrating, and focusing. Even severe confusion, problems with multitasking, processing information slower, having a hard time with reasoning and judgment, problems understanding, and even memory loss.