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How do side effects occur?

The goal of chemotherapy is to destroy cancer cells. Traditional chemotherapies work by killing cells that divide rapidly, but as they eliminate fast-growing cancer cells, they can also damage healthy cells. Damage to healthy cells can lead to side effects such as nausea, fatigue or infection. Chemotherapy that damages the cells that line mucous membranes throughout the body can lead to mouth sores, dental problems, diarrhea or other issues with the digestive system. Damage to cells at the hair roots, or follicles, can lead to hair loss. Each person with cancer reacts differently to chemotherapy and fortunately, doctors now have ways to reduce and even prevent side effects.

Common chemotherapy side effects include:

When do side effects occur?

Chemotherapy side effects can occur at the time of treatment, after treatment or even sometimes before treatment (such as anticipatory nausea and vomiting, a learned response caused by previous associations between treatment conditions and subsequent reactions).

Remember that chemotherapy side effects can impact each person differently. You may experience no side effects with some drugs and severe side effects with others. Be aware that neither the absence nor presence of side effects can be interpreted as an indication of your treatment’s effectiveness.

How to manage side effects

There are ways you can adjust your daily activities to cope with chemotherapy side effects. Some practical ways to reduce the impact of side effects include:

  • Dietary changes
  • Adjustments to your daily activities, such as shortening an activity or doing it less frequently
  • Wardrobe alterations
  • Simple exercises, such as walking or yoga

Your doctor may also suggest over-the-counter products or prescribe other medications to counteract chemotherapy side effects.

Communicating with your health care team about side effects

It is important to let your doctor and the rest of your health care team know about any side effects you may be experiencing, as they may be able to adjust your treatment plan or prescribe supplementary medications to reduce—or possibly eliminate—the impact of chemotherapy side effects on your quality of life. Read CancerCare’s fact sheet titled, “Talking to Your Health Care Team About Treatment Side Effects” for more information.

You may find these tips helpful for discussing side effects with your doctors:

  • Start a health care journal. It is important for you to maintain an accurate record of the side effects you experience, as well as the date & time they occurred, their frequency, their severity and their impact on your daily activities. By providing a complete record of your experiences, you can help your health care team make informed decisions when evaluating, or potentially adjusting, your treatment plan.
  • Prepare questions before your appointments. It may be difficult to remember everything you want to ask when speaking with your health care team. To ensure you get the information you need, create a running list of questions and add new ones as they arise, then bring the list with you when you meet with your health care team. Remember to try and make your questions specific and brief as your doctor may have limited time. Once you’re at your appointment, ask your most important questions first.
  • Tell your doctor about all the medicines you are taking. This includes herbal and dietary teas or supplements, vitamins and over-the-counter medicines. Your treating health care team needs to know about anything that could potentially interact with your prescribed chemotherapy treatment, even if it seems harmless, like a daily multivitamin. Keeping your doctor informed will help them ensure you are being treated in the most effective way possible.

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