More than 40 percent of men and women born today will be receive a cancer diagnosis at some time during their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute. The news can be life-changing and reactions vary. After the initial shock some live in denial; many others are consumed by fear.
“One of the big fears patients voice to me is that they will experience serious side effects from cancer treatment,” says Michael Kosty, MD, a medical director at Scripps Cancer Center. “I always emphasize that most symptoms these days can be very well mitigated or controlled, and that many patients experience only minimal to moderate side effects. Medications and treatments are improving every day, and fear of side effects should never delay or interfere with necessary treatment.”
The most common side effects can result from the three primary treatments for cancer: surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy. Among the most commonly experienced side effects are:
- Eating and digestive issues such as:
- Dry mouth
- Taste changes
- Appetite loss
- Weight gain or loss
- Difficulty chewing and swallowing
- Intestinal problems
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Bleeding and clotting problems
- Fluid retention or build-up in the lungs, trunk or limbs
- Anemia, fatigue and sleep problems
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hormonal imbalances in both men and women
- Concentration problems and mental confusion
- Nerve-related side effects, like pain and neuropathy
- Temporary hair loss or skin problems
David Leopold, MD, director of medical education at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, echoes Dr. Kosty’s advice. “Overall, today’s interventions are far better tolerated by patients than they ever have been. I always counsel my patients to approach treatment with an open mind and a positive attitude, and that for most patients, we can manage side effects very effectively.”
Complementary and integrative treatments can help with both physical and emotional side effects. Evidence indicates the following can be effective:
- Guided meditation
- Psychological counseling
- Support groups
“I never hesitate to counsel my patients that pharmaceutical interventions—prescription medications—may be needed during treatment to help with things like sleep problems, nausea, anxiety or even situational depression,” Dr. Leopold says.
Dr. Kosty says treatment advances are part of the reason fewer patients experience severe side effects today versus a decade or two ago. “If you’re talking about surgery, for example, a tumor that may once have required a large incision and a hospital stay might now be accomplished through minimally invasive surgery, laparoscopically or even in a robotically-assisted surgery.”
Radiation therapy has also improved in the last few years. Newer machines allow treatment to be administered in a more targeted, focused way, preserving more healthy surrounding tissue. “Some patients may be able to complete their treatments in a matter of days rather than a matter of weeks,” says Dr. Kosty. “I’ve had patients report they felt no side effects from radiation treatment at all.”
Newer, targeted chemotherapy agents are also being developed every day that are less toxic than earlier formulas.
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