Coping with the side effects of cancer and its treatment

One of the major challenges of survivorship will be being able to cope with side effects.

  1. Types of cancer side effects
  2. Side effects of cancer and its treatment
  3. The mental and emotional challenges of cancer side effects
  4. Support coping with the side effects of cancer

Types of cancer side effects

Coping with the side effects of cancer and its treatment will be easier when you understand more about the different types of side effects possible.

The reality for practically all cancer patients is that cancer treatments and the disease itself will cause them a myriad of side effects. Everyone will have an individual response to cancer treatments, all which have the potential to damage healthy cells causing side effects.

What is meant by the ‘Acute effects’ of cancer on the body? This is the term used to describe the short-term problems for example, hair loss or vomiting. These side effects are caused by the toxicity of the anti-cancer drugs, are usually experienced during treatment and will improve with time.

Long-term effects’ refers to the side effects which start during treatment then become difficult to resolve, such as fatigue or loss of memory function. They become chronic problems which persist long into survivorship, damaging the overall quality of life1 after cancer.

The ‘Late effects’ of cancer treatment are the long-term issues which may not present themselves clinically until months or years have passed since the competition of treatment. That is to say, conditions such as lymphedema2 or damage to the heart or lungs.

When these difficult side effects become apparent, they are potentially irreversible3, can even be life-threatening4 and will need to be managed on a long-term basis. Returning to normal life after cancer may take time and involve further challenges in coping with the side effects of cancer.

For some patients, these side-effects will be endured on top of any pre-existing problems a patient is suffering from. Such cumulative health problems are most apparent in elderly patients who are most likely to already be dealing with various health issues such as COPD, arthritis, high blood pressure or diabetes.5,6

Cancer Side Effects

Many people fear their treatment regimens. They worry about coping with the side effects of cancer treatment and anticipate the worst. With the progress of science, many advancements in anti-cancer drugs have been made meaning that treatments, such as some forms of chemotherapy, are less harsh. These kinder treatments lead to fewer side effects, permitting more people to be able to go about their daily business, even continuing to work in some capacity throughout their regimens.

In fact, there are lots of side effects are now either preventable or at least treatable in some way.7 Throughout your treatment plan there will be periods of rest built into the cycles of drug protocol in order to allow your body to recover from any side effects. Throughout, you will be monitored to see how your cancer is responding to the drugs, how your body is withstanding any side effects and the impact they are having upon your overall wellbeing.8

In incurable cases, palliative treatment will aim to reduce your cancer-related symptoms in order to improve your quality of life. For example, a persistent cough caused by a tumour in the lung can become very waring and debilitating, but for many can be relieved through palliative chemotherapy or palliative radiation. Also, every individual will respond differently to their prescribed anti-cancer drugs9 and will be able to tolerate the range of side effects they experience10 with varying amounts of success.

With treatment regimens increasingly tailored to the individual, a patient’s response will depend upon various factors. For example; the type of treatment they received, how it was given, the dosage, over what time-frame they had the drug administered and how their own body reacts.11

It is therefore pointless to compare how you feel, how able you are to carry out daily tasks or even when you should contemplate going back to work with other patients. This is because the way you react to treatment will be not be the same experience, even for those who have the same type and stage of cancer.

Side effects of cancer and its treatment

Side effects of cancer and its treatment

What are the harmful effects of cancer?

General side effects of cancer and its treatment are wide-ranging, experienced on an individual basis and caused by several different factors.12 Cancer patients will need to prepare themselves for significant changes to their physical ability and outward appearance.

Common side effects cancer patients suffer from are;

  • hair loss
  • tiredness
  • weight loss
  • nausea
  • low-blood count
  • problems with concentration
  • pain
  • a loss of libido
  • decreased sexual dysfunction
  • infertility.13

Managing the physical side effects of cancer will be one of the major ongoing concerns of a cancer survivor.

However, the impact upon a patient’s quality of life will fluctuate and change over the course of their illness.15 Your experience will depend upon how the disease progresses, how your body copes and how it responds to the medication used to control these problems.

Some of these side effects are caused directly by the anti-cancer treatment and others are symptoms of the disease itself.14

These health concerns could even be caused by an over-lap with an underlying or unrelated health issue.16 Many patients will experience what is known by oncologists as a ‘symptom cluster’, which refers to when a patient suffers from a few different issues all at the same time, for instance; sleep disturbance, fatigue, pain, anxiety, and depression.17, 18 This can make coping with the side effects of cancer even more of a challenge.

Patients with advanced cancer usually are living with these multiple, coexisting side effects, 19 which cause them significant distress.The most common combination of side effects a patient with advanced cancer will experience are; pain, fatigue, problems eating, constipation, weight loss, a lack of energy, breathlessness and nausea or vomiting.20, 21

Alongside a team of palliative care professionals, your oncologist will be dedicated to treating these symptoms effectively and in a timely manner irrespective of how advanced your disease is and how long a life you have left to live.22 Coping with the side effects of cancer is easier to do when you know that your medical team is by your side.

The mental and emotional challenges of coping with the side effects of cancer

The social and emotional effects of these side effects of cancer and its treatment can be wide ranging and can impose a psychological impact over the long-term.

Coping with the side effects of cancer can be difficult no matter what stage your cancer is defined. Certainly at the beginning of the illness, the treatment can prove more difficult to cope with than the disease itself.23

Having the stamina and raw energy required to mentally get ahead of the toll these side effects are having upon your body and life can prove difficult for even the strongest characters. Finding the ability to cope with the side effects of cancer will be an issue for all.

As the side effects become more apparent and start impacting upon the quality of your life, emotions will become increasingly heightened. It is common to experience feelings of fear, helplessness, isolation, anger, guilt and blame, all making living with these symptoms or side effects much more difficult.24

Anxieties around invasive diagnostic and treatment procedures will start to surface. Concerns about the effectiveness of the treatment you are being advised and the potential of long hospitalized care. Such competing stresses compound the strain placed upon your mental wellbeing and as these challenges are felt, the potential for psychological distress is intensified.

Being able to control how you respond to, and ultimately suffer from,25 the threat to your overall wellbeing side effects can have is not an easy task. Your mind can run away from you as you start to overthink and question every reaction you feel within your body.

You and your caregiver may start to panic and link the severity of the side effects with the status of disease itself. Distinguishing whether a side effect is a symptom of the cancer progressing or due to the anti-cancer drug working can become confusing. Clarification of what to expect should always come from your oncologist and discussing what to expect will help ease any anxieties. However, expect side effects from the anti-cancer drugs as any drug that works will have side effects.26

For those with advanced cancer, the experience of symptoms and side effects can be marked by a sense of permanent loss, with feelings of grief will surface as you start to feel changed.27 Accessing psychological support and stress management is crucial to help you cope with the fear and chronic stress28 of the situation along with the restrictions to your capabilities that you are experiencing.29

Support in coping with the side effects of cancer

To minimize any problems, it is important to recognize what your body is experiencing and keep your oncologist informed of any changes in your body you notice. Being well-informed and knowledgeable of the potential side-effects you may have will help you be able to spot the signs as early as possible.

This early detection of any issues that your body is experiencing will help your medical team be able to control and manage the side effects of cancer over the long-term. The aim is that the issue of coping with the side effects of cancer does not develop into a chronic problem which stays with you into survivorship. The aim is that you are able to return to your normal life after cancer.

Many people may be worried about being completely truthful when raising any concerns they may have and there is sometimes a reluctance for the patient and their caregiver to be completely honest with their oncologist. This temptation to down-play the extent or severity of side-effects is out of fear that the treatment may be changed, reduced or even be stopped altogether.

Although your oncologist may decide a different course of action, for you to receive the best treatment tailored to you throughout, along with the support you need, it is best to be entirely honest. Resolving any complications early will help avoid any delays or changes to your treatment plan as difficulties resulting from side effects can affect your program and ultimately your prognosis.

Support

The best way to do this is to maintain contact either with your specialized nurse in the cancer unit as they will provide you with a contact phone number for support day or night. It is important to remember that these teams have vast experience of all sorts of complaints and will know exactly how to best deal with them promptly and effectively.

In fact, side effects such as an infection if left untreated, could become very serious, very quickly.30 It is therefore very important that you do not shy away from telling your oncologist about any side-effects you are suffering.

How to survive cancer emotionally and cope with the psychological impact of cancer side effects?

Coping with the side effects of cancer is possible. There are a lot of practical strategies that you can personally do in order to deal with the big emotions associated with having experienced cancer and its side effects cancer. For example;

  • try to eat well
  • taking supplements and keeping hydrated can help protect your body and prevent damage.31
  • ensuring that you take your medications as prescribed is essential
  • noting down any changes you experience in your body in a ‘symptom diary’ is a useful idea
  • maintaining personal and oral hygiene32
  • being mindful of safe food preparation and storage
  • ensuring visitors are well and sanitize their hands upon arrival are all advisable in the attempt to reduce your chances of infection.33

There is also scientific evidence that complementary therapies can be useful for some patients in reliving certain side effects. For example, it has been shown that acupuncture and hypnotherapy can reduce pain and nausea.34

They can also help survivors cope with the psychological impact of the side effects of cancer. For example; massage, mediation, acupuncture, mind-body techniques and music therapy can all aid relaxation and help control generalised anxiety and distress.

Looking after yourself in every way possible has to be your over-riding goal at this time.

If you think the information on this new website would be helpful to others, please like and share the word.

Recommend to others facing cancer, on support forums, social media, in person or by email. Thank you.

References

  1. Peppone, L. J. et al (2011) ‘The Effect of Cigarette Smoking on Cancer Treatment–Related Side Effects’, The Oncologist, Vol. 16 (No. 12), pp. 1784-1792 [Online]. Available at: http://theoncologist.alphamedpress.org/content/16/12/1784.full (Accessed: 4th May 2019).
  2. McNeely, MScPT, PhD, M. L. (2012) ‘Cancer Rehabilitation: Opportunities and Challenges’, Physiotherapy Canada, 64 (2), pp. 111–112 [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3321997/ (Accessed: 20th April 2019).
  3. Rosenberg, S., 1992. The Transformed Cell, Unlocking the Mysteries of Cancer. 1st ed. Great Britain: Chapmans.
  4. So et al., W. K. W., 2009. The Symptom Cluster of Fatigue, Pain, Anxiety, and Depression and the Effect on the Quality of Life of Women Receiving Treatment for Breast Cancer: A Multicenter Study. Oncology Nursing Forum, [Online]. 36 (4), E205-E214. Available at: https://onf.ons.org/onf/36/4/symptom-cluster-fatigue-pain-anxiety-and-depression-and-effect-quality-life-women-receiving [Accessed 18 December 2018].
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