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Julie Wilkinson, BSN, RN

Dealing with Chemotherapy Side Effects

By February 8, 2012

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As one of the treatment modalities for colon cancer, chemotherapy has its' fair share of side effects. Before the side effects frighten you away from this treatment, learn some insider tips on how to relieve these unwanted effects.

Chemotherapy works by killing cells that rapidly divide (think hair, skin, and cells lining the gastrointestinal tract). This is why the majority of reported side effects include these systems - both your healthy and cancerous cells are under attack.

Each one of us has very different priorities - a symptom that is very concerning to me may not bother you at all. Although I wasn't taking a poll while working with patients undergoing chemotherapy, I recall three frequently recurring complaints: a lack of energy, hair loss concerns and appetite changes.

Lack of Energy: a.k.a. "Fatigue"

According to the American Cancer Society, fatigue is one of the top complaints for patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment. A dear friend and nurse taught me how to help patients conserve energy. Imagine your energy in terms of money. You begin each day with a limited amount of energy dollars (say, oh, $100). Each activity you complete during the day spends these energy dollars. Brushing your teeth? $2. Vacuuming the house? $20. Conserve your "energy dollars" and spend them on things that are vital to you.

Hair Loss

I've watched patients deal with hair loss in many ways - ranging from tears to complete indifference. There are two things to remember about hair loss: it will grow back, and not all chemotherapy regiments make you lose hair. The American Cancer Society suggests cutting your hair prior to treatment if your doctor says you will lose it. It would keep the appearance of fuller hair and not be as disconcerting when the short strands start falling out. You will also want to be kind to your hair: don't over-style it with products, chemicals and blow-drying. If you chose to get a wig, get one before you lose your hair. That way, you can match your color and style with a wig specialist.

No Appetite

A lack of appetite can be complicated by gastrointestinal upset (nausea, diarrhea) or even with painful sores in your mouth. You may have no desire to eat or the food may take on a metallic taste. The National Cancer Institute suggests eating with plastic utensils (to help with the metal taste) and eating smaller meals throughout the day. I also found that if my patients sucked on ice chips during their intravenous chemotherapy, some people did not develop mouth sores at all. Keep it healthy and do what works for you.

Connect with Julie: Facebook |My Forum | @Abtcoloncancer


American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Chemotherapy: Common Side Effects. Accessed February 2, 2012.

American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families. Accessed February 6, 2012.

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects: Appetite Changes. Accessed February 6, 2012.

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