Science has come a long way in treating fatal conditions, and while chemotherapy is toxic and may not seem like a good thing, it often extends the life of a patient and even sends cancer into remission. Of course, like any drug, there are complications that arise with chemotherapy treatment, and perhaps because it is a toxic chemical that is used to literally poison cancer cells, some of the issues that come up are a bit scary.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy can be used to treat other ailments but is most often associated with the treatment of cancer. In chemotherapy, harsh chemical drugs are used, such as cytotoxins, to eradicate the cancer cells. The idea is to keep them from proliferating or spreading to other organs from where they have originated, thus prolonging the life of the patient and perhaps actually clearing the cancer cells, even if temporarily. Chemo is often used in conjunction with radiation therapy, which targets radiation on the tumor itself to help shrink and kill the cells.
Unfortunately, chemotherapy can’t be targeted to only fast-growing cancer cells and also often affects other fast-growing cells as well. These include hair, skin, bone marrow, and intestinal cells. This is why many chemotherapy patients lose their hair, and why it can cause nausea and vomiting.
Chemotherapy and the immune system
During chemotherapy treatment, patients experience a very weakened immune system. This has to do with the fact that bone marrow cells can’t grow as frequently or quickly because chemo affects all fast-growing cells, not just cancer. Why does this affect the immune system?
Bone marrow is where red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are produced. These are all vital in a healthy immune system. When bone marrow growth is compromised, it follows that there will be a severe change in blood cell production, which then reduces the ability of the immune system to react to other toxins, bacteria, viruses, and the like. That means cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are more susceptible to infections overall and can suffer more prevalent and harsh symptoms once an infection is present.
How this is related to UTIs
Several aspects of undergoing chemotherapy can lead to an increased risk of UTIs.
- Compromised immune system. A compromised immune system means that a person is at greater risk for any type of infection. That includes UTIs, and therefore, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are predisposed to urinary tract infections.
- Excess chemicals in urine. The kidneys are used to filter waste from the bloodstream. Since chemotherapy – and any cells they kill – are going to pass through the kidneys and the rest of the urinary tract, there is a high likelihood of excess irritation, blockage or difficulty filtering, and the settling of some of this waste as sediment in the bladder, which can feed bacteria.
- Use of catheters. In some cases, chemotherapy is delivered by catheter, or a patient must use a catheter while on chemotherapy. Using a catheter irritates the urethra and bladder, and it can cause swelling and inflammation that make it harder to empty the bladder, thus leading to a UTI.
- Less movement. Chemotherapy is painful and exhausting to many, and this could result in a patient being very sedentary. If this happens, the person might have more difficulty getting up to go to the bathroom frequently, which leads to residual urine creating an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria in the urinary tract.
Symptoms and treatment of UTIs
- Pain and burning during urination
- Cloudy, smelly, or discolored urine
- Frequent, sudden, and urgent need to pee
- Pain in the pelvis, abdomen, or lower back
- Slow stream of urine or inability to empty the bladder
- Little results when trying to pee
It’s especially important to note signs of a kidney infection, since the kidneys are already working harder than usual. These include high fever, extreme pain in the back and flanks, and nausea and vomiting. This can be difficult to notice, since chemotherapy causes similar symptoms, which is why catching the infection before it reaches the kidneys is crucial.
Antibiotics usually treat and cure a UTI, but there may be interactions with certain medications when a person is on chemotherapy. Therefore, it’s essential to get a physician’s recommendations and prescription for the right treatment. Depending on the severity of the infection, the doctor may recommend a shot of antibiotics to jumpstart the action.
For the average person, preventing a UTI is no big deal. Drinking lots of fluids, especially water, and eating healthy works well enough. Also, good hygiene helps. However, cancer patients undergoing chemo may have difficulty and need help with hygiene, since the treatment can leave patients very weak. In addition, a compromised digestive system can make it hard to process foods and drink enough to maintain proper hydration, especially when vomiting.
Still, cancer patients should make any effort they can to avoid a UTI. There are enough complications with chemotherapy that it can be damaging to mental health to have to suffer from other ailments as well.