Side effects from cancer treatments often feel like they are heaped onto an overflowing plate from a smorgasbord at the cancer cafe. Every treatment comes with a long list of possible effects with the caveats that most people don’t experience all the effects and they range in severity. That’s true enough. I’ve experienced many of them over time due to the reality of being on multiple treatments. The list below is not complete. Side effects I’ve had the displeasure of having include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss
- Mood changes
- Higher risk of infection (low white blood cell counts)
- Anemia (low red blood cell counts)
- Easy bruising and slower healing
- Chemo Brain
- Appetite changes
- Weight changes
- Hand foot syndrome
- Dry skin
- Dryness of mucous membranes
- Chemo induced menopause
An entire separate buffet needs to be set out to adequately serve all the undesirable dishes that accompany chemo induced menopause. Sexual side effects are a big part of menopause. Entering it as a chemo induced experience brings some unique spices and flavors to the smorgasbord. Fortunately, there are ways to address these effects so women are more comfortable and happier.
Emotional side effects like anxiety, depression, grief, and identity questions may not directly be caused by a cancer drug, but they certainly can develop or become magnified from diagnosis, throughout treatment, after treatment, or carry into what’s next. Trauma also can develop from a myriad of cancer moments. These are available at the smorgasbord and it’s all you can eat.
Addressing mental health side effects are just as important as addressing physical side effects. No, a person doesn’t have to suck it up or get over it. Positivity is not a cure all. I may not feel like gutting myself emotionally and exposing all my pain as a casual conversation. Someone may look just fine on the outside and be struggling within.
Unfortunately, I have added a new side effect to my list in the past month:
- Mouth, tongue, and throat problems such as sores and pain with swallowing
Fun fact: a person can’t swallow and breathe at the same time. I have had three of these esophageal spasms, triggered by taking oral medications and supplements. I’ve described it as comparable to a swallow getting stuck but there is nothing causing an obstruction. It feels like I imagine a heart attack would because I can’t breathe. Scary isn’t a strong enough word. And it’s painful.
It’s a triple F moment for sure.
The same week as one of these spasms, I discovered I had mouth sores. They were on the inside lining of my mouth in both cheeks. Perhaps as far back as my throat. No wonder my mouth hurt! It explained my ongoing pain and difficulties eating and speaking in addition to swallowing. I called the triage line two days in a row. The previous day I called because my throat still hurt from the spasm episode and I discovered one whole pinky toe had turned into a flaming blister. The blister is a sign of hand foot syndrome. It turns out I need to keep rinsing my mouth throughout the day with warm salt water and keep my mouth as clean as possible. This easy at home solution worked quickly and the sores have resolved. Omneprozole is successfully preventing any more spasms.
Drugs are often prescribed to deal with side effects and they also have side effects of their own. It becomes a vicious cycle.
Serious side effects (more serious than those covered) like heart, liver, and kidney damage can also result from cancer treatments. The term side effect seems like it’s lacking when major organs can suffer permanent damage.
So . . . which side effect is the worst?
Whichever one is happening at the present moment.
Rarely are side effects ever on the side.
This smorgasbord sucks. I want to order off the menu and go straight to desserts. Ice cream sounds delightful.
- I know my list is not complete as there are side effects I’ve dodged. Please share others if you’re comfortable.
- What side effects have you found challenging? What has worked well to manage them? Please add your comments so others may benefit.