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Side effects of cancer treatment can occur before, during or even years after treatment has concluded, but here are many ways a patient can manage the side effects that may be experienced.

To effectively deal with the side effects of cancer treatment, a patient must become educated and knowledgeable about each possible side effect and how to best combat each one.

What Are the Side Effects of Cancer Treatment?

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer can cause some devastating side effects, some of the effects will go away rather quickly, while others can last for a long period of time.  Cancer profoundly  effects three areas of a persons life: physically, emotionally and spiritually.  It is important to know how each area is effected, because quality of life and general well being can be dramatically impacted.

Physical  Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatment side effects will be different in males than in females, and the effects are unique to each individual.   The following is a list of side effects that can happen during chemotherapy and radiation treatments:

Chemotherapy Side Effects:

  • Fatigue
  • Premature Menopause/ Early menopause
  • Infertility
  • Changes to the heart (which increase the likelihood of a stroke or heart attack)
  • Osteoporosis (for those who suffer from forms of bone cancer)
  • Decreased lung capacity and breathing difficulties
  • Kidney, liver and urinary issues
  • Muscle weakness
  • Neuropathy (tingling, numbness and other sensations in the body, especially in the hands and feet)
  • Cognitive issues (such as memory loss or difficulty concentrating)
  • Texture change in skin, nails and/or hair
  • Secondary Cancers
  • Vision Loss
  • Obesity (for childhood cancer suffers)
  • Mouth sores
  • Stomach upset
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • Anemia
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Radiation Side Effects:

  • Burning of the skin
  • Cataracts (if radiation is done near the eyes, cranial-spinal or Total Body Irradiation (TBI)
  • Infertility in men and women (if ovaries or testes are treated, cranial-spinal or TBI)
  • Secondary cancers (in areas treated)
  • Problems with bowel and/or bladder 
  • Permanent hair loss (if scalp area is radiated over a certain dose limit)
  • Loss of tears and ability to salivate (if radiated near the mouth)
  • Thyroid or adrenal gland issues (if neck is radiated)
  • Problems with bowel and bladder (if these areas were radiated)
  • Sensitivity to sun exposure
  • Dental decay, tooth loss and/or gum disease (if area near or mouth is radiated)
  • Slow or cessation of  growth of bones in children
  • Affects pituitary gland and multiple hormonal effects (relating to the hypothalamus-pituitary regions being radiated)
  • Decrease in range-of-motion in some areas of the body

Emotional Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

A person going through or concluding cancer treatment can experience a wide-range of issues.  The person may continue to experience strong feelings regarding treatment and the cancer itself, or can even harbor new feelings that evolve over time.  Long term emotional feelings about ones cancer experience can surface months or even many years later.  Such feelings a person can experience might include:

  • Anger
  • Depression and/or sadness
  • Feeling abnormal
  • Can influence interpersonal relationships
  • Fear
  • Body image concerns ( physical scarring from surgical scars, loss of limb, etc.)
  • Uncertainty about the future
  • Concerns about pain/fatigue
  • Difficulty working due to physical, emotional or physiological effects of cancer treatment
  • Financial stress
  • Changes in relationship with spouse, family, friends, children, co-workers, etc.
  • Difficulty getting life or health insurance
  • Employment discrimination
  • Finding it hard to discuss concerns with health care team

A cancer patient may experience some or all of the emotional side effects and might find the emotions are difficult to discuss with others.  There are also thoughts, emotions, feelings and reactions that are too numerous to list and will effect each person differently.  Any of these feelings are valid and very real, and deserves proper attention and the right treatment, which is the key to making a full recovery from the many issues that may occur.

Spiritual Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

To some people, the word “spirituality,” refers to religion, however, to each person the word means something different.  Spirituality to a person can mean following a certain religion or practicing a certain faith, and can also be described as a persons sense of peace, purpose, connection to others and as the meaning of life.  People can be religious or spiritual, or a combination of both.
It is not known for certain how spirituality effects both life and and health.  However, there have been some studies which have shown that religious and spiritual beliefs can have a positive impact on how a person copes and deals with the stresses of a disease.  Having a positive attitude can make a person feel better, provide a sense of well-being and improve health and quality-of-life.
Doing a spiritual assessment will enable a physician to gain insight as to how religion and spirituality play such an important role in the life of a cancer patient.  This will help give the physician an understanding as to how the way a person perceives spirituality, and in turn, affects the response a person has to a cancer diagnosis and  makes decisions regarding care and treatment.

Alternative Treatments for Cancer Side Effects

Once a patient has identified which side effects are being experienced, only then can proper treatment begin.  There are many different alternative treatments for cancer treatment side effects and which ones will work best depends upon the personal experience of the patient and the outcome desired.

Yoga for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Yoga is an art form that has been practiced for thousands of years, only recently has science began to understand how yoga can benefit those suffering from the side effects of cancer treatment.  The practice of yoga incorporates medication, imagery, relaxation, controlled breathing, stretching and physical movement.
The University of Texas conducted a study of women with breast cancer who had undergone surgery and a 6-week regimen of chemotherapy.  Of the 61 women, 30 of who enrolled in a yoga program, nearly all the women in the yoga program experienced a higher level of physical function in all areas of life.  The women enrolled in the yoga program reported feeling better, having more energy, less fatigue and experienced fewer sleeping difficulties.  
Another study showed that yoga can decrease depression, improve mental health, promote positive emotions and spirituality and increase feelings of peace and well-being.  With more scientific studies on the horizon, researchers are now focusing on all the health-related benefits that can come from cancer patients practicing yoga.

Biofeedback for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Biofeedback therapy involves using the mind to control various functions of the body, such as heart rate, respiratory rate and blood flow.  A biofeedback practitioner uses an electronic device for monitoring a specific function of the body, such as muscle tension.  The device features a beeping sound or lights, which alters the patient that muscles are relaxing or blood pressure is lowering.
Biofeedback therapy has shown to be an effective pain controller for those suffering from the pain of cancer treatment.  Biofeedback is safe and with the assistance of a qualified professional, some people can learn to do biofeedback on their own.

Acupuncture for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Acupuncture involves the use of tiny needles being placed into the skin at certain points.  Scientific studies have consistently shown that acupuncture relieves nausea and pain that can come from chemotherapy treatment. 

Acupuncture is a safe option when it is done by a licensed professional, using sterile needles.  However, for a person receiving blood thinners or with a low blood count, acupuncture could be   unsafe, so it is important to consult with a physician prior to undergoing acupuncture.

Aromatherapy for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils either infused into the air or applied to the skin to relieve the pain, nausea and stress that comes from receiving cancer treatments.  Scents like lavender or vanilla have been shown to significantly reduce stress levels and provide a cancer patient with an overall sense of calm and peace.
Aromatherapy can be practiced with the help of a practitioner, or a person can try aromatherapy on their own.  The treatment is safe, though it is important to note that some essential oils can cause an allergic reaction if placed directly on the skin.

Hypnosis for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Simply put, hypnosis is a deep state of concentration, and a therapist can hypnotize someone speaking in a soft, gentle voice and making relaxing suggestions.  The goal of hypnosis is to help the patient focus on goals such as pain control and stress reduction.
Hypnosis can be a powerful tool for cancer patients who suffer from pain, fear and anxiety that oftentimes accompany cancer treatment, can also alleviate nausea and vomiting.  Hypnosis is a safe option that should only be done under the guidance of a licensed professional and may not be a good option for those with a history of mental illness, without prior consultation with a physician.

Tai Chi for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Tai Chi is a form of exercise that involves gentle movements combined with deep breathing.  The practice of Tai Chi may be done under the direction of an instructor or a can be learned by a person using books or videos. 

Practicing Tai Chi can be beneficial for patients who are experiencing pain and can help relieve stress that sometimes accompanies cancer treatment.  Tai Chi is generally a safe practice and the exercises are slow and do not require any difficult movements.  A patient can adapt the movements of Tai Chi to their own personal ability and should never do any movements that cause pain.

Massage Therapy for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

A message therapist will manipulate the skin, muscles and tendons in an effort to reduce tension and stress, in a desire to induce relaxation.  There are several types of massage that exist, some are light and some are more deeper, using more pressure.  Scientific research has discovered that certain types of massage can help cancer sufferers who experience pain, anxiety, fatigue and stress.
Many cancer treatment facilities have massage therapy departments on site or a patient can seek a referral from a physician.  With the help of a licensed, certified massage therapist, a patient can experience relief from any number of side effects that occur as a result of cancer treatment.

Benefits of Alternative Therapy for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

It is important to bear in mind that just because someone undergoes cancer treatments, does not mean a person will experience side effects.  Different treatments can cause different side effects and each person is unique, what works for one person might not work for another.
For a person who is seeking relief from the side effects of cancer treatment, it is important to keep the body, mind and spirit in a healthy condition.  Exercise, a healthy diet and regular check-ups with a physician are all imperative to the prognosis of cancer, and will have a direct effect upon the way a persons body will respond when trying alternative methods for relieving the sometimes grueling side effects of cancer treatment.