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Chemotherapy Side Effects

/As with most medications, chemotherapy may cause side effects. Many of these are related to the way in which chemotherapy medications work – by targeting rapidly dividing cells. These rapidly dividing cells are the hallmark of cancer but are also found in other, healthy parts of the body such as the hair follicles (our hair is continuously growing), the bone marrow (which produces a lot of blood cells) and the skin and digestive tract (where the lining is constantly being renewed).

Some of the side effects that are commonly associated with chemotherapy are:

  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Diarrhoea or constipation;
  • Fatigue;
  • Mouth ulcers;
  • Hair loss;
  • Changes in appetite;
  • Loss of taste or sense of smell;
  • Increased risk of infection; and
  • Anaemia.

Side effects are very individual and different medications can cause different side effects. Some people have no side effects whatsoever, while others experience all of them. Some of the factors that influence whether a person will have side effects, when they will start and how bad they include:

  • The dose or amount of medication;
  • How long the person has been having chemotherapy;
  • The person’s overall general health;
  • The way the chemotherapy is given; and
  • Other medications.

It is important to note that experiencing, or not experiencing, side effects in no way indicates how well the treatment is working.

Most of these side effects are temporary and disappear once treatment is over. Some side effects, such as nausea or diarrhoea, may only occur on the days that you are actually having the medication, while others may last for the entire course of treatment. These days, most side effects can be effectively treated or managed with additional medications, holistic therapies and lifestyle modifications.

Long Term Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Most side effects gradually improve and eventually cease after chemotherapy is stopped and healthy cells have had the chance to recover. However, some side effects may be permanent or not appear until months or years after treatment has ceased. These long term side effects of chemotherapy vary depending on the exact medication used but may include damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, nerve endings and reproductive system.

Patients receiving chemotherapy are frequently monitored for these types of side effects and if early changes are detected, the chemotherapy dose or type is usually adjusted to prevent these side effects from becoming permanent. Once chemotherapy treatment has finished, it is important for people to see their GP for regular health checks so that any late or ongoing side effects of chemotherapy can be detected and managed early.

It is important to view these potential side effects in the overall context of chemotherapy, where the benefits of treatment outweigh the possible risks.

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