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How to manage the side effects of chemotherapy

This is a guest post written by Dr. Signang Alberic Ndonku. He is a pharmacist working with the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health services at Mbingo Baptist Hospital (oncology/palliative care unit)

Chemotherapy (also known as chemo) is a kind of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells.  It can be given as pills, capsules, oral liquids, creams, and/or as injections. The drugs work by stopping or slowing the cancer cells.

However, in the process, it can also harm healthy cells, leading to side effects.

Chemo affects different people in different ways. Some may have a lot of side effects, some a few and others, none at all. It will depend on the type and dose of your chemo and whether you have other health problems.

Often, side effects get better or go away after chemo is over; some may cause long term effects. Side effects are often so intense patients give up along the way. It doesn’t have to be so.

Today we will be talk about some of the common side effects of most cancer medications, how to manage them and a few tips to safely take your medicines.

You may be feeling low on energy and tired all the time. This is one the most common side effects of chemo.

Getting a lot of rest and some exercise could help boost up your energy. You can also plan and prioritize your day so you get to do the most important things first. Do not be afraid to ask for help from your friends and family.

You may feel like throwing up (nausea) or actually throwing up (vomit) a lot. You could:

o   Eat in smaller chunks and avoid strong smelling foods

  • Rinse mouth before and after eating to remove any strong smells

o   Try ginger based foods

o   Sit up after eating

o   Anti-nausea medication

When your red blood cell count is low, you may have pale skin or feel fatigue, dizzy, headaches etc. To help you should:

o   Get plenty of rest (at least 8 hours a day with short naps during the day)

o   Eat a balanced diet, rich in proteins and vitamins (spinach, eggs…etc)

o   Reduce your energy consuming activities and learn to ask for help

o   Your health care provider may prescribe/suggest some medications.

You may notice your hair starts falling out. This is usually one of the most difficult parts people have to go through and need all the support they can get. You could:

o   Avoid using harsh chemicals on your hair and not shampoo your hair too often.

o   Avoid hot irons and electric hair dryers.

o   Cutting or shaving your hair may make you feel more in control. You can also use a wig and get creative with your hair accessories.

The pain can range from mild to severe. To help you could:

o   Describe your pain well to your doctor so he can prescribe the appropriate pain medications. Take medication as prescribed. Keeping a pain diary and noting important details like when the pain starts, where it pains, how long it last, triggers and what relieves you.

o   Try other techniques like deep breathing and yoga. 

Some medications can either increase or reduce your appetite and change the way food tastes in your mouth. It is however important you eat well and balanced.

o   Eat in smaller more frequent chunks than big meals.

o   Your surroundings matter, try eating around friends and family.

o   Try new different kinds of foods or different forms like smoothies, milk shakes, processed foods.

o   Increase the aroma of the foods you eat.

  • As much as possible do not miss a dose (put reminders if you have to)
  • If you have to take any other medications, make sure they are approved by your doctor. Let them know all medications and supplements you are taking.
  • Keep your medications up and away from children.
  • Do not chew, crush, dissolve or split oral chemo.

General Safety measure: If a caregiver is the one administering the medications, he should wear gloves. Both patient and caregiver should wash hands after handling chemotherapy drugs.

The side effects of chemo could be really discouraging but hang in there. There is hope on how to manage them. These were just a few tips, talk with your doctor about all your side effects and you will be helped further.

Also joining a cancer support group can help you with more tips from people going through what you are going through.

Are there more tips you would want to share with us? Drop a comment.

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