It is hard to limit the side effects of stomach cancer therapy so that only cancer cells are removed or destroyed. Because healthy cells and tissues also may be damaged, treatment for stomach cancer can cause unpleasant side effects.
The side effects of stomach cancer treatment are different for each person, and they may even be different from one treatment to the next. Doctors try to develop a stomach cancer treatment plan that keeps the side effects to a minimum; they can help with any problems that occur. For this reason, it is very important to let the doctor know about any problems during or after the stomach cancer treatment process.
Surgery Side Effects for Stomach Cancer
Gastrectomy is major surgery. For a period of time after the surgery, the person's activities are limited to allow healing to take place. For the first few days after surgery, the patient is fed intravenously (through a vein). Within several days, most patients are ready for liquids, followed by soft, then solid, foods. Those who have had their entire stomach removed cannot absorb vitamin B12, which is necessary for healthy blood and nerves, so they need regular injections of this vitamin. Patients may have temporary or permanent difficulty digesting certain foods, and they may need to change their diet. Some gastrectomy patients will need to follow a special diet for a few weeks or months, while others will need to do so permanently. The doctor or a dietitian (a nutrition specialist) will explain any necessary dietary changes.
Some gastrectomy patients have cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and dizziness shortly after eating because food and liquid enter the small intestine too quickly. This group of symptoms is called the dumping syndrome. Foods containing high amounts of sugar often make the symptoms worse. The dumping syndrome can be treated by changing the stomach cancer patient's diet. Doctors often advise patients to eat several small meals throughout the day, to avoid foods that contain sugar, and to eat foods high in protein. To reduce the amount of fluid that enters the small intestine, patients are usually encouraged not to drink at mealtimes. Medicine also can help control the dumping syndrome. The symptoms usually disappear in 3 to 12 months, but they may be permanent.
Following gastrectomy, bile in the small intestine may back up into the remaining part of the stomach or into the esophagus, causing the symptoms of an upset stomach. The patient's doctor may prescribe medicine or suggest over-the-counter products to control such symptoms.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy for Stomach Cancer
The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the drugs the patient receives. As with any other type of stomach cancer treatment, side effects also vary from person to person. In general, anticancer drugs affect cells that divide rapidly. These include blood cells, which fight infection, help the blood to clot, or carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When blood cells are affected by anticancer drugs, patients are more likely to get infections, may bruise or bleed easily, and may have less energy. Cells in hair roots and cells that line the digestive tract also divide rapidly. As a result of chemotherapy, stomach cancer patients may have side effects such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, or mouth sores. For some patients, the doctor may prescribe medicine to help with side effects, especially with nausea and vomiting. These effects usually go away gradually during the recovery period between treatments or after the stomach cancer treatments stop.
Radiation Therapy Side Effects for Stomach Cancer
Patients who receive radiation to the abdomen may have nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The doctor can prescribe medicine or suggest dietary changes to relieve these problems. The skin in the treated area may become red, dry, tender, and itchy. Patients should avoid wearing clothes that rub; loose-fitting cotton clothes are usually best. It is important for patients to take good care of their skin during treatment, but they should not use lotions or creams without the doctor's advice.
Stomach cancer patients are likely to become very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.
Biological Therapy Side Effects for Stomach Cancer
The side effects of biological therapy vary with the type of treatment. Some cause flu-like symptoms, such as chills, fever, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Patients sometimes get a rash, and they may bruise or bleed easily. These problems may be severe, and patients may need to stay in the hospital during treatment.