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Of late, there have been many news articles pertaining to cancer, the big C is no longer a taboo subject. This is a war we need to fight together to win.

The most common cancer affecting women worldwide and in Malaysia is breast cancer ......

Dr Mastura Md Yusof, Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Cancer Centre @ PHKL, Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur

Forum Let's Talk Cancer

The Star
12th January 2016

CANCER TREATMENTS > CHEMOTHERAPY > SIDE EFFECTS

Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy is very effective in treating cancer; however it does cause side effects. The side effects may occur because of the medication used for chemotherapy between fast growing cancer cells and other types of fast growing cells i.e. blood cells, cells on the skin.

It is not easy to predict the side effects that patient will experience while having chemotherapy as different people react to the treatment in different ways. Some people may experience very few or even no side effects. Common side effects of chemotherapy are as listed below:

  • Rapid falls in white blood cells

    If you experience a rapid fall in white blood cells, it can be vulnerable to serious infections. These are symptoms that may suggest you have serious side effects:

    • High temperature fever more than 38°C
    • Shivering
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Flu-like symptoms, like muscle aches and pain
    • Bleeding gums or nose and other parts of body that does not stop even after applying pressure for 10 minutes
    • Mouth ulcer
    • Continuing vomiting
    • Diarrhea

    If you are having these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.

    You may be given a course of antibiotics to reduce risk of infection and most importantly, you may advised to take extra precautions to protect yourself against infection.

    • Avoid contact with people, who may have serious infections i.e. Chicken pox and influenza. Practice good personal hygiene by
      • Washing hands regularly with soap especially after going to toilet and before preparing food.
      • Taking daily bath or shower
      • Ensuring clothes, towel and bed linen are wash regularly
    • Do not cut or graze your skin. If you do, just clean the area thoroughly with warm water and clean it with dry, clean and sterile dressing.

    Any patients, who develop infection, may need to be admitted to the ward and to be treated with intravenous antibiotics.

  • Low Platelets Count

    Most of chemotherapy medications do not seriously affect the number of platelets, but some people may experience such a case. Symptoms of low platelet counts are:

    • Easily get bruised skin
    • Bleeding gums
    • Nose bleed

    If any of the symptoms appear, report to the doctor as you may need blood transfusion to raise the platelet count.

  • Fatigue

    One of the common side effects in chemotherapy is fatigue or tiredness. It is very important to get plenty of rest and avoid unnecessary activities. Light exercise may boost up energy level but not to push too hard. If there is significantly tire more than usual, please contact your medical care team because extreme tire may be a sign of anemia.

  • Nausea and Vomiting

    Most of the patients are given a medication to control the symptoms as nausea and vomiting, which are also known to be the most common side effects of chemotherapy. Medication need to be taken continuously to avoid symptoms from returning.

  • Hair Loss

    Not all chemotherapy may cause hair loss. Sometimes the hair may become thin and brittle. Hair loss effect usually begins a few weeks after starting chemotherapy treatment. Hair loss may happen at any part of the body including head, arms, legs, face, armpit and pubic region. However, just remember that hair loss is temporary and the hair will grow back soon after chemotherapy has finished.

  • Oral Mucositis

    You may experience ulcers on the lining of your mouth, in some cases on your tongue and around lips. The tissue inside your mouth may also feel sore as if you are eating very hot food. Your doctor can prescribe medications to relieve the symptoms. However, the symptoms of oral mucositis should clear up in a few weeks after chemotherapy has finished.

  • Loss in Appetite

    Due to the chemotherapy treatment, you may lose your appetite and may not feel like eating or drinking. It is very important for patients to make an effort to eat healthy and drink plenty of water.

  • Dry skin

    Some chemotherapy may cause skin to become dry and sore. Nails may become brittle and flakier than usual and white lines may develop across the nails. During chemotherapy and even after chemotherapy has finished, skin may become more sensitive to sunlight. It is very important to take extra precautions to protect skin from the sun.

  • Diarrhea and Constipation

    Usually after you begin the chemotherapy, you may experience conditions of diarrhea or constipation. Get advice and medication from your doctor.

  • Sexuality and Fertility

    During the chemotherapy course, some patients may experience diminishing interest in sex. This symptom usually is temporary and it will gradually return once you have finished your treatment.

    In some instances, chemotherapy medications may affect the ability of women to conceive and prevent men from producing healthy sperm. Loss of fertility is a temporary effect although some cases have been reported where a person can permanently become infertile. You can discuss such possibilities with your doctor before treatment begins.