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Side Effects & Symptom Management

Many cancer treatments cause side effects. Cancer itself can cause symptoms that change a person’s day-to-day life. The topics here list the most common concerns.

Huntsman Cancer Institute has many resources available to our patients and their loved ones to help with the side effects of cancer treatment:

  • The Acute Care Clinic offers same-day care for cancer patients who need quick treatment for side effects and other issues such as nausea.
  • Our Supportive Oncology & Survivorship team helps patients create plans for long-term well-being during and after treatment. The team includes doctors who specialize in managing pain and other symptoms.
  • The Wellness & Integrative Health Center offers many classes and services to promote health in mind and body. Yoga, massage, art therapy, and one-on-one exercise sessions are just a few examples.
  • Our Patient & Family Support social workers offer group, individual, and family counseling to help people affected by cancer manage the feelings and concerns they have.
  • The Sexual Health & Wellbeing Clinic can help people navigate physical, emotional, and interpersonal relationship changes from cancer treatment.

Find even more resources below.

Emotional Changes

Anxiety is common when facing new or stressful situations such as a cancer diagnosis and the life changes it brings. You may feel like something bad is going to happen. You may have physical symptoms such as a faster heartbeat, shaking, and sweaty palms. Some of these can also be caused by cancer treatments. It is important to tell your cancer care team if you feel this way.

Feeling sad and angry is normal when facing cancer. Some medicines such as steroids can add to it. Depression involves feelings of hopelessness or despair that don’t go away and get in the way of your normal activities and relationships. Other symptoms can include loss of appetite, changes in sleep, low energy, and having a hard time focusing. Talk to your cancer care team if you feel this way.

Cancer treatments can lead to changes in memory and thinking, sometimes called chemo brain. Many patients feel forgetful or have a hard time focusing. This is usually temporary and gets better after treatment. It may be caused by the treatment itself, related stress, or being tired.

Physical Changes

Anemia happens when the body does not have enough red blood cells, which carry oxygen to tissues throughout the body. When there are too few red blood cells, the body’s tissues do not get enough oxygen to do their work. This makes you feel tired or weak. A blood test can check for anemia.

Some chemotherapy drugs slow the body’s production of platelets, the cells that clot the blood if you get a cut. Bleeding problems are common in patients with low numbers of platelet cells. This is called thrombocytopenia. Patients who have this condition must be extra careful not to get hurt, because they are more likely to bleed.

Constipation means having few bowel movements, and the stool is hard or small. It is important to treat these symptoms early. Opioids (narcotic pain medicines) can cause constipation. Talk to your cancer care team before taking any laxatives or stool softeners.

Feeling fatigue (extreme weakness or tiredness) is a very common side effect of cancer treatments. It has many causes, including low blood cell counts from chemotherapy, recovery, distress, and changes in diet and sleep patterns.

Hair loss is common with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These treatments target cells in the body that grow very quickly—a trait of cancer cells and hair cells. You may lose hair anywhere on the body. Hair loss usually begins two to three weeks after the first treatment. Not every patient loses hair. It depends on the type of chemotherapy or the amount of radiation.

Lymphedema is fluid buildup in an area because of damage to the lymph system. It is a side effect of radiation therapy and certain cancer surgeries that remove lymph nodes. It is most common in the arms or legs. Many things can trigger lymphedema: airplane travel, infection, insect bites, overuse or injury of the affected limb, or sunburn.

Cancer treatments can cause inflammation of the tongue, lips, mouth, throat, and gastrointestinal tract. This often leads to mouth sores (called mucositis) and discomfort when eating, drinking, and sleeping. Take good care of the mouth to avoid infection.

Cancer medications and treatments often cause nausea. This may be a general queasy feeling or enough to make you vomit. Your care team can give you medicine to help with nausea if it gets in the way of your day-to-day activities.

Some chemotherapy drugs can cause changes to your skin or nails:

  • Itching, dryness, redness, rashes, and peeling
  • Acne-like rash
  • Increased sun sensitivity
  • Darkened, yellowed, brittle, and cracked nails
  • Darkened veins in the area of the IV

Some chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapies can irritate the bladder and cause urinary changes. Your cancer care team may take urine samples to check for signs of kidney problems. Some chemotherapy drugs also cause urine to change color or to have a strong, medicine-like odor for up to 72 hours after infusion.

Sexual Health & Fertility

Cancer treatments may cause temporary or permanent changes in fertility, or the ability to have children. Risk factors depend on age and type of treatments such as radiation to the pelvic area or surgery to remove all or part of the reproductive organs. Talk to your health care team about possible fertility changes before treatment begins. Our Sexual Health & Wellbeing Clinic offers a team of providers who can help you navigate the process and provide sexual health support during and after cancer treatment.

Cancer and its treatments sometimes cause side effects that make it difficult to have sex:

  • Males: Genital discomfort, pain during ejaculation, or difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection
  • Females: Dry vagina, abnormal vaginal discharge, or bleeding after or during intercourse

Many patients have feelings and emotions that lessen sexual desire during or after cancer treatment. This might include fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety, and changed body image. Honest communication of feelings, concerns, and preferences is important. Learn more about resources for sexual wellbeing for people with cancer.

Huntsman Cancer Institute works with the Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine (UCRM) at the University of Utah to help people with cancer who want to have children after treatment. Here is how the process works.

  • Males: The UCRM collects your semen and freezes it before cancer treatment begins. They can store semen for many years. They use it later to make your partner pregnant.
  • Females: The UCRM collects some of your eggs before cancer treatment begins. The eggs may be frozen right away or first fertilized and then frozen. Fertilized eggs are called embryos. Frozen eggs or embryos can be stored for years. You can use them when you are ready for pregnancy. In some cases, doctors can give medicines that may protect fertility during cancer treatment. Experts at the UCRM will work with you and your health care team to find the best fertility plan for you.

Pain & Infection

Pain is a common symptom for people with cancer. In addition to the cancer itself, treatments for cancer may also cause pain. Proper pain management can help improve your quality of life. Let your health care team know if you have cancer-related pain. The Supportive Oncology and Survivorship (SOS) service at Huntsman Cancer Institute has a team of experts trained in treating cancer-related pain and its many side effects using medicine and non-medicine treatments.

  • Patients may be prescribed opioids for cancer-related pain and will be closely monitored. When used as prescribed, opioids can be an effective way to manage moderate to severe pain. Other treatments, such as nerve injections, nerve surgery, and pain pumps, can also help manage pain.
  • Many complementary and integrative health treatments have also been shown to reduce and help manage pain. The Wellness & Integrative Health Center can provide services, such as massage, acupuncture, and movement classes, to aid in managing side effects.

Some chemotherapy drugs damage nerves. This can cause a condition called peripheral neuropathy. Patients describe it as tingling, burning, weakness, numbness, or pain in the hands or feet. Nerve damage may present as unsteadiness when you stand or walk, dropping things from your hands, or less ability to feel heat and cold.

White blood cells help protect the body from infection. Chemotherapy causes a low number of white blood cells in the body. This condition is called neutropenia. It puts you at a higher risk of getting an infection. When you have low white cell numbers, it is important to avoid sources of infection such as people who are sick or improperly prepared foods.

Some chemotherapy drugs may cause muscle or joint aches and pains. Symptoms are usually temporary and get better, but it may take up to a year after treatment stops.

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