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Side Effects

It is hard to limit the side effects of leukemia therapy so that only leukemia cells are destroyed. Because leukemia treatment also damages healthy cells and tissues, it causes side effects.

Leukemia side effects associated with treatment vary. They depend mainly on the type and extent of the leukemia treatment. Also, each person reacts differently. Side effects may even be different from one treatment to the next. Doctors try to plan the patient's therapy to keep the side effects of the leukemia treatment to a minimum.

Doctors and nurses can explain the side effects of treatment and can suggest medicine, diet changes, or other ways to deal with the leukemia side effects you experience.

Leukemia Chemotherapy Side Effects

The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the drugs the patient receives. In addition, as with other types of treatment, leukemia side effects may vary from person to person. Generally, anticancer drugs affect dividing cells. Cancer cells divide more often than healthy cells and are more likely to be affected by chemotherapy. Still, some healthy cells also may be damaged. Healthy cells that divide often, including blood cells, cells in hair roots, and cells in the digestive tract, are likely to be damaged. When chemotherapy affects healthy cells, it may lower patients' resistance to infection, and patients may have less energy and may bruise or bleed easily. They may lose their hair. The also may have nausea, vomiting, and mouth sores. Most side effects go away gradually during the recovery periods between treatments or after treatment stops.

Some anticancer drugs can affect a patient's fertility. Women's menstrual periods may become irregular or stop, and women may have symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Men may stop producing sperm. Because these changes may be permanent, some men choose to have their sperm frozen and stored. Most children treated for leukemia appear to have normal fertility when they grow up. However, depending on the drugs and doses used and on the age of the patient, some boys and girls may not be able to have children when they mature.

Leukemia Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Patients receiving radiation therapy may become very tired. Resting is important, but doctors usually suggest that patients remain as active as they can.

When radiation is directed to the head, patients often lose their hair. Radiation can cause the scalp or the skin in the treated area to become red, dry, tender, and itchy. Patients will be shown how to keep the skin clean. They should not use any lotion or cream on the treated area without the doctor's advice. Radiation therapy also may cause nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. These side effects are temporary, and doctors and nurses can often suggest ways to control them until the treatment is over.

Leukemia Stem Cell Transplantation Side Effects

Patients who have stem cell transplantation face an increased risk of infection, bleeding, and other side effects because of the large doses of chemotherapy and radiation they receive. In addition, graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) may occur in patients who receive stem cells from a donor’s bone marrow. In GVHD, the donated stem cells react against the patient’s tissues. Most often, the liver, skin, or digestive tract is affected. GVHD can be mild or very severe. It can occur any time after the transplant, even years later. Steroids or other drugs may help.

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