Other Cancer

Side Effects

It is hard to protect healthy cells from the harmful effects of cancer treatment. Because cancer treatment does damage healthy cells and tissues, it often causes side effects of cancer treatment. The cancer treatment side effects depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Also, the side effects of cancer may not be the same for each person, and they may change for a person from one treatment to the next. A patient's reaction to treatment is closely monitored by physical exams, blood tests, and other tests. Doctors and nurses can explain the possible side effects of cancer treatment, and they can suggest ways to reduce or eliminate problems that may occur during and after cancer treatment.

Side Effects of Surgery

The side effects of cancer surgery depend on many factors, including the size and location of the tumor, the type of operation, and the patient's general health. Although patients are often uncomfortable during the first few days after surgery, this pain can be controlled with medicine. Patients should feel free to discuss ways of relieving pain with the doctor or nurse. Another common side effect of surgery for cancer patients includes feeling tired or weak for a while after surgery. The length of time it takes to recover from an operation varies among patients.

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

The side effects of radiation therapy depend on the treatment dose and the part of the body that is treated. Patients are likely to become extremely tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Extra rest is often necessary, but doctors usually encourage patients to try to stay as active as they can between rest periods.

With external radiation, there may be permanent darkening or "bronzing" of the skin in the treated area. In addition, it is common to have temporary hair loss in the treated area and for the skin to become red, dry, tender, and itchy. Other possible side effects of radiation therapy include a decrease in the number of white blood cells, cells that help protect the body against infection.

Although radiation therapy can cause side effects, these can usually be treated or controlled. Most side effects are temporary, but some may be persistent or occur months to years later.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy side effects depend mainly on the drugs and the doses the patient receives. As with other types of treatment, chemotherapy side effects vary from person to person. Generally, anticancer drugs affect cells that divide rapidly. In addition to cancer cells, these include blood cells, which fight infection, help the blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When blood cells are affected, patients are more likely to get infections, may bruise or bleed easily, and may feel unusually weak and very tired. Rapidly dividing cells in hair roots and cells that line the digestive tract may also be affected. As a result, chemotherapy side effects may include loss of hair, poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores.

Hair loss is a major concern for many people with cancer. Some anticancer drugs only cause the hair to thin, while others may result in the loss of all body hair. Patients may cope better if they prepare for hair loss before starting treatment (for example, by buying a wig or hat). Most side effects go away gradually during the recovery periods between treatments, and hair grows back after treatment is over.

Some anticancer drugs can cause long-term side effects such as loss of fertility (the ability to produce children). Loss of fertility may be temporary or permanent, depending on the drugs used and the patient's age and sex. For men, sperm banking before treatment may be an option. Women's menstrual periods may stop, and they may have hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Periods are more likely to return in young women.

Hormone Therapy Side Effects

Hormone therapy can cause a number of side effects. Patients may feel tired, have fluid retention, weight gain, hot flashes, nausea and vomiting, changes in appetite, and, in some cases, blood clots. In women, hormone therapy may cause interrupted menstrual periods and vaginal dryness. Hormone therapy in women may also cause either a loss of or an increase in fertility; women taking hormone therapy should talk with their doctor about contraception during treatment. In men, hormone therapy may cause impotence, loss of sexual desire, or loss of fertility. Depending on the drug used, these changes may be temporary, long lasting, or permanent. Patients may want to talk with their doctor about these and other side effects.

Side Effects of Biological Therapy / Immunotherapy

The side effects caused by biological therapy vary with the specific treatment. In general, these treatments tend to cause flu-like symptoms, such as chills, fever, muscle aches, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Patients also may bleed or bruise easily, get a skin rash, or have swelling. These problems can be severe, but they go away after the treatment stops.

Side Effects of Bone Marrow Transplantation (BMT)

Patients who have a BMT or PSCT face an increased risk of infection, bleeding, and other side effects due to the high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation they receive. The most common side effects associated with the transplant itself are nausea and vomiting during the transplant, and chills and fever during the first day or so. In addition, graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) may occur in patients who receive bone marrow from a donor. In GVHD, the donated marrow (the graft) reacts against the patient's (the host's) tissues (most often the liver, the skin, and the digestive tract). GVHD can be mild or very severe. It can occur any time after the transplant (even years later). Drugs may be given to reduce the risk of GVHD and to treat the problem if it occurs.

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