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Cancer Awareness

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Coping with the side effects of chemotherapy

Upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, men and women are often quick to inquire about their options with regard to treating their disease. Treatments vary depending on the type of cancer and whether or not the cancer has begun to spread, or metastasize, beyond its point of origin, but chemotherapy is one option used to treat various cancers.

First used to treat cancer in the 1950s, chemotherapy drugs help kill cancer cells and may be used to keep the cancer from spreading, slow its growth and/or relieve certain symptoms caused by the cancer.

As effective as chemotherapy treatments can be, the drugs used in such treatments are very strong and kill any cell that's growing fast, even if that cell is not cancerous. The death or damage of these normal and healthy cells is responsible for the side effects of chemotherapy. Some people do not experience any side effects of chemotherapy, while others develop side effects that can be painful, effect self-esteem negatively and make it difficult to maintain a normal level of activity during ongoing treatments.

The following are some common side effects of chemotherapy and some suggestions on how to best cope with them should they surface during treatment.

Nausea and vomiting

Because chemotherapy drugs are so strong, many people feel sick to their stomachs or vomit during their treatments. Nausea and vomiting that results from chemotherapy typically surfaces a few hours after a treatment, and men and women might feel their effects for a short time after they begin.

Coping with nausea and vomiting is something that should be discussed with your physician, who may prescribe medications to make these symptoms subside or at least lessen in severity. If the medicine does not work or if the vomiting continues for more than one day, call your physician.

Hair loss

Upon beginning chemotherapy, many people are understandably concerned about losing their hair. But only certain chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss. Before beginning chemo treatments, your physician will likely discuss the potential side effects of the drugs that will be administered during the treatment, including the likelihood that you will lose your hair. Hair loss may occur slowly or rapidly, and sometimes hair only thins.

When doctors advise you that hair loss is likely to occur, speak to the doctor about how to take care of your hair and scalp during treatment and ask about any potential solutions to mask the hair loss. Many people find their self-esteem suffers when they experience chemo-related hair loss, but such loss is nothing to be ashamed of and you can employ head covers, wigs and scarves to mask hair loss during treatment. Your health insurance may even cover the cost of a wig or hairpiece you might need as a result of chemo treatments.

Memory loss

Some people find their memory slips and their ability to concentrate is compromised during and after chemotherapy treatments. This is more likely to happen among people whose chemotherapy drugs are administered in especially large doses.

Memory loss and other side effects that effect the brain remain somewhat of a mystery. But men and women who find their memory and concentration suffering during chemotherapy treatments should speak with their physicians, who may suggest certain mental exercises to counter the memory loss and keep the brain going strong throughout the treatment process.

Changes in the mouth and skin

Dental care is an important part of chemotherapy treatment. Certain chemo drugs can cause sores in the mouth or throat, and the American Cancer Society recommends that men and women visit a dentist prior to beginning chemotherapy treatments. A dentist can show you how to take care of your teeth and gums during chemo, which may require you do more than your normal dental routine.

In addition to dental issues, skin changes are a side effect of certain chemo drugs. Redness, itching, dryness, acne, and peeling are some of the skin problems people have reported while receiving chemotherapy treatments. Others have reported allergic reactions that can cause hives and make it difficult to breathe. These particular issues must be treated right away, and if you report them to your physician, he or she may insist that you receive treatment in his or her presence so he or she can treat this reaction immediately.

Chemotherapy is an effective way to kill cancer cells and prevent them from spreading, but such treatment may produce potentially painful side effects. Men and women should not suffer these side effects in silence, as there are many ways to lessen their severity and make it easier to endure treatments.