When you’re coping with cancer, you might also have to deal with unwelcome neurological side effects. Sometimes, these side effects come from the cancer itself. “That could be the case if the tumor metastasizes to the brain or involves the spinal cord or peripheral nerves,” said Na Tosha Gatson, MD, a neuro-oncologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona.
But in most cases, it’s the cancer treatments—not the cancer itself—that lead to side effects. Radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy can all trigger neurological problems. When you’re being treated for cancer, depending on the type of therapies you are taking, you might experience:
- Neuropathy, or tingling, pain, or numbness in your hands or feet
- Cognitive changes
- Tissue that’s damaged from radiation
- Myelopathy, a type of spinal cord injury
- Sexual dysfunction
- Vision or hearing changes
- Gait imbalance
- Insomnia or sleep disorders
- Blood pressure fluctuations
- Sensitivity to cold or heat
- Leg cramps
Start by sharing what’s happening with your doctor
The first step in managing these symptoms is to let your doctor know what’s happening. “All too often, patients sit quietly and never mention their concerns,” Dr. Gatson said. Patients and caregivers should feel comfortable speaking up. Your doctor can make recommendations and, if needed, can help you connect with a neuro-oncologist—a doctor who specializes in cancer neurology.
Your healthcare provider might recommend tests for vitamin deficiencies, diabetes, thyroid disorders, and other conditions. That’s because it’s important to rule out other factors that might be reversible and could be causing or worsening your symptoms.
Treatment can help alleviate many side effects
For neuropathy, combinations of therapies and medications can help with pain, tingling, and burning. Unfortunately, there aren’t good treatments for numbness from neuropathy. In that case, it’s important to take good care of your hands and feet and to keep them safe, since numbness means you might not notice an injury.
Many neuropathy symptoms are treatable such as tremors, tingling or burning in your hands and feet, insomnia, and erectile dysfunction. Others such as numbness, cold or heat insensitivity, and cognitive changes are more difficult to treat and usually require a multidisciplinary treatment approach.
If you’ve tried some options and you’re still struggling with symptoms from your cancer or cancer treatment, other specialists can help. Your healthcare provider should refer you to a neuro-oncologist and might also recommend:
- Palliative or supportive care
- Integrative medicine
- Neurocognitive, neuropsychology, or psycho-oncology care
The bottom line
If you’re undergoing cancer treatment and experiencing neurological side effects, talk to your doctor. “The treatment should not be worse than the disease,” Dr. Gatson said. “And many times, a neuro-oncologist can partner with your medical oncologist to help improve your quality of life and your tolerance of the important treatments you need for your cancer.”
To learn more about cancer treatment, check out these articles:
- The Important Role Plastic Surgery Plays in Cancer Treatment & Recovery
- You’re Cancer-Free! Now What?
- Understanding Common Side Effects of Cancer Treatments