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Understanding Common Side Effects of Cancer Treatments

Cancer has a way of making you feel completely unique and completely anonymous at the same time. On one hand, the disease doesn’t need to know your name or your life story – it appears all the same, without warning or sympathy. On the other hand, the cancer is simultaneously personalized to your body. You may experience different or more severe side effects that others with the same disease or treatment may never experience. The job of a cancer specialist is to interpret and decipher these reactions and help manage them.

“Your experience with cancer and treatment will have its own twists and turns,” said Donato Dumlao, MD, a palliative medicine specialist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at Banner Gateway Medical Center, in Gilbert, AZ. “As part of the Supportive and Palliative Cancer Care team, our team plays a key role during the cancer journey. As you undergo treatment, we will work with you to manage and mitigate your side effects. Uncontrolled side effects could manifest physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It can cause existential distress. Along with your treatment plan, palliative care works to improve your outcome and experience.”

Dr. Dumlao explained that even the most common side effects can vary from patient to patient. He added, “Side effects related to cancer treatments are common. Most patients will finish their fight against cancer without long-term complications. You won’t know how you will react until you begin. Every journey requires careful attention and flexibility, but you are never alone.” Your team will include experts in everything from nutrition to acupuncture. Dr. Dumlao also emphasized the importance of getting adequate sleep, proper nutrition and exercise throughout your treatment.

Before any treatment begins, you and your team of specialists will discuss the benefits of treatment and possible side effects that you may encounter. It’s important that you maintain regular, honest communication with your oncologist in order to manage your side effects effectively.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a proven, time-tested procedure. By oral, or more often by intravenous (IV), administration, the patient is treated with a medication that targets cancerous growth with powerful drugs that kill and control the growth of cancer cells. The duration of your treatment and the specific formula needed will depend on each case.

Common side effects associated with chemotherapy include, but are not limited to:

  • Temporary hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Depression
  • Increased sun sensitivity
  • Numbness or weakness in the hands and feet
  • Chemobrain - cognitive issues that include memory problems, trouble concentrating and other mental symptoms

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy has become exponentially more targeted over the last decade. Using methods that can be focused down to a square inch of your body or smaller, radiation is used to eradicate cancerous growth. More than half of cancer patients will undergo some form of radiation treatment. The side effects of radiation therapy will depend on the area of the body you are targeting as well as the dosage you are prescribed. As with other treatments, most side effects will be acute, but could lead to some chronic issues.

Common side effects of radiation therapy include, but are not limited to:

  • Temporary hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Skin burns can appear after several treatments
  • Inflammation
  • Organ damage, depending on the location

Side Effects of Immunotherapy

Your immune system is built to defend your body from infection and disease. Immunotherapy helps your immune system recognize and fight against the growth of cancerous cells. There are several types of immunotherapies, and each helps the immune system in a different way. While some common side effects exist, your experience will vary depending on the cancer and treatment you are experiencing.

Common side effects of immunotherapy include, but are not limited to:

  • Fatigue
  • Skin disorders and sensitivity
  • Nausea
  • Inflammation
  • Digestive issues
  • Fever
  • Soreness
  • Headache

Treatment That Is Centered on You

“During treatment, it may seem as if every waking moment is focused on cancer,” said Dr. Dumlao. “We recognize that our patients are complex individuals with lives and obligations that can’t be put on hold. When we build a treatment plan, we consider every factor in your life including financial, familial, spiritual and emotional needs.” As side effects and evolutions in your treatment occur, we will adjust your treatment to be as effective and comfortable as possible, so that you can live the life that you love most.

If you are looking for more information about cancer treatments, you can find resources at bannerhealth.com. You can schedule an appointment with a Banner MD Anderson expert any time to discuss your symptoms or concerns.

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