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Scripps Health Watch

Keys to coping with chemo side effects

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.6 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer in 2013. Depending on the type of cancer and stage, chemotherapy may be recommended, often in combination with other treatments such as surgery and radiation therapy.More commonly referred to as chemo, chemotherapy uses powerful medications to destroy cancer cells. A single medication may be used, or several may be combined. Chemo drugs travel through the bloodstream and affect the entire body. While this helps kill cancer cells, the toxic chemicals can also damage healthy cells, which can cause unwanted side effects.

Newer medications have significantly decreased the severity of many side effects, but some may still occur. By knowing what to expect from chemotherapy treatments and how to minimize any negative effects, patients may find it easier to cope with treatments, and their family members and friends may be better prepared to help as well.

One of the most commonly reported complaints is fatigue. To combat this, patients should try to get at least eight hours of sleep each night and rest during the day whenever needed. Mild exercise can help increase energy. Many hospitals offer exercise programs for their cancer patients that are designed to provide the right level of activity for each individual.

Thanks to improved medications, nausea and vomiting during or after chemo treatment are less common than they were several years ago. However, patients who do experience nausea and vomiting may find it helpful to avoid eating for several hours before treatment. Eating several smaller meals instead of a few large ones may help. Bland, easily digested foods are better choices than fried or very sweet foods.

Chemotherapy lowers the number of platelets in the blood, which can cause patients to bruise and bleed more readily. To help reduce this, patients should use a soft-bristle toothbrush and brush gently. For men, an electric shaver may be preferable to a razor. Patients should avoid taking any medications without consulting their doctor, as some medications can make bleeding worse.

Some patients notice that their mental clarity isn’t as sharp as usual after chemo. This condition, known as “chemo brain,” may be caused by some of the medications. Though the brain usually recovers over time, “chemo brain” can be challenging to cancer patients who need the mental sharpness to work, study or make household decisions. It can help to use a daily planner, make lists and post reminders in prominent places.

Hair loss is also common among chemo patients. Typically, hair will grow back a few months after treatment ends. In the meantime, patients can protect their scalps with wigs, hats, and scarves, especially in the sun, or use sunscreen if they choose not to cover their scalps. Soft pillowcases can also help protect delicate scalp skin.

Patients who experience side effects should inform their physicians and cancer care team, as there may be treatments available. Finally, it’s important to let patients know they can ask family or friends for help at any time.

“Health Watch” is brought to you by the physicians and staff at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas. For more information or for physician referral, call 1-800-SCRIPPS or visit