6 Prevalent Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Photo: Artsy Vibes

1. Neutropenia

Neutropenia occurs when the body’s white blood cell count is too low. 

When a person with cancer undergoes chemotherapy treatment to target and kill the fast-growing cancer cells in their body, the treatment can also kill the non-cancerous cells. Neutrophils – a type of white blood cell produced in the body’s bone marrow – imitate cancer cells by reproducing very quickly. Because of this, chemotherapy treatment often kills these cells too, leading to neutropenia. People with neutropenia are at a higher risk of infection (most commonly: mouth, lungs, throat, skin, or sinuses) because their body lacks the white blood cells needed to fight back. Doctors can tell if a person suffers from neutropenia by taking samples of their blood and calculating the absolute neutrophil count (ANC).

Common symptoms of neutropenia include: – Nasal congestion – Coughing/shortness of breath – Fever – Diarrhea – Pain during urination – Chills – Sore throat

For more information on Neutropenia, visit this webpage or ask your healthcare provider if you are concerned about your risk.

2. Early Menopause

Sometimes, chemotherapy treatment can affect a woman’s ovaries, damaging them and (temporarily or permanently) stopping their menstrual cycle.

Going through early menopause can be devastating for women, particularly because of its affect on their ability to have children. Early menopause has many of the same symptoms as regular menopause (night sweats, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness). However, because of its unexpected nature the symptoms can be more severe.

Find out more about how to manage menopause’s symptoms HERE. And check out our “Ask the Expert” article on fertility and breast cancer to find out about the different options available to you.

3. Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis occurs when the body’s bone mass and bone density levels are below normal – increasing the likelihood of breaking a bone. 

Going through menopause puts you at risk for osteoporosis, or bone loss. So, if someone has undergone menopause early because of cancer treatment, they may be at risk for developing osteoporosis at a younger age. Bone loss means that your bones are generally weaker and at greater risk of breaking. The most common breaks that occur as a result of osteoporosis are in the spine, wrist, and hip. For more information about osteoporosis and cancer or how to manage it, check out this article.

4. Lymphedema

When fluid collects in the lymph nodes of the arm, hand, chest, back, or fingers and causes them to swell, it’s called lymphedema. 

Often times, when someone undergoes breast surgery (mastectomy or lumpectomy), lymph nodes from the underarm will also be removed and tested for cancer. Sometimes this surgery and radiation therapy can cause some of the lymph vessels to become blocked and unable to release fluid. Lymphedema can be extremely uncomfortable, especially if the blockage is severe.

For more information on lymphedema, how to treat it, and how to reduce your risk, click HERE.

5. Cognitive Function

AKA Chemo Brain: Commonly described as a (long-term or short-term) lack of “mental sharpness” during or after cancer treatment. 

According to the American Cancer Society, many people with cancer have described “chemo brain” as:

– Memory lapses – Difficulty concentrating – Inability to multi-task – Forgetting common words – Taking longer to finish tasks – Difficulty remembering details

Doctors and researchers have found that these brain function problems could be from a combination of many factors, like: cancer treatment drugs, low blood counts, sleep problems, depression, stress and anxiety, or the cancer itself.

To find out more about chemo brain and how to manage it, visit the American Cancer Society’s webpage. And don’t forget to check out our list of helpful apps for people going through cancer treatment!

6. Neuropathy

Neuropathy is the result of damage to the peripheral nervous system within the body, affecting the way the brain communicates with various parts of the body.

Neuropathy that occurs after chemotherapy treatment is called “chemotherapy-associated peripheral neuropathy.” Since chemotherapy treatments and medications travel throughout the body, they have the ability to damage nerves. The peripheral nervous system is in control of the peripheral parts of the body (such as the hands and feet). When this system is damaged, it affects the brain and spinal cord’s ability to communicate with the body’s joints and muscles. This can result in pain, numbness, and a variety of other symptoms.

For more information on neuropathy, it’s symptoms, and which chemotherapy treatments can cause it, check out this article. 

Just how treatment side effects aren’t limited to hair loss, they also aren’t limited to physical effects. Check out our blog series, “The Psychosocial,” to find out how cancer diagnoses and treatments can affect the mind just as much as the body. 

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