A List of Chemotherapy Symptoms and Some Tips to Help
Once you start chemotherapy, your body will respond in many different ways. Some people breeze through chemo with very few symptoms. Then there are others, like myself, who suffer almost every symptom related to chemo and all of the poisonous drugs being pumped into the body. There is a whole list of different symptoms. I will go through each one, list the symptoms, and try to offer some advice on how to ease those symptoms.
16 Symptoms and Tips for Chemotherapy
- I would have to say the first symptom that shows up and we are warned about is NAUSEA. Three days before the first chemo treatment, one takes an anti-nausea drug prescribed by one’s doctor and takes it each day until the actual day of chemo. This drug is supposed to help suppress nausea when you receive your first chemo treatment. Also, there are several different drugs used depending on the particular treatment prescribed for a particular kind of cancer. Your doctor will decide which drug is best for you. I followed all of the instructions to the tee, and it initially worked for me. But as time went on, the drug began to fail. I got more and more nauseated, and I was put on more and more drugs. By the middle of my treatments, I was taking 6 different drugs for nausea, and I was still vomiting almost constantly and could not keep down a lick of food and very little liquid. I ended up with severe dehydration and had to have I.V.’s after almost every treatment. I will go into more detail about this in a later post. SOLUTION: I started taking marijuana for the nausea and to help keep down very small amounts of food and liquid.
- METAL TASTE IN MOUTH – This is another symptom that we are warned about. I really feared this happening to me because I was already having such difficulty eating. I knew if everything started tasting like metal, I would probably stop eating all together. As it turned out, I could not eat hardly anything. Everything made me throw up, so I started avoiding food altogether. I lost almost 100 lbs. in 4 months! I was losing weight so fast and getting weaker by the day. My oncologist told me if I did not start eating, I would not survive the treatments. ( I did not experience this problem. It probably would not have mattered as I could not eat anyway!) SOLUTION: If one does experience this symptom, one is advised to not use metal silverware. Everyone agrees that if you use plastic silverware it will help eliminate this problem.
- JOINT ACHES AND PAIN – I already had major joint aches and pain. I have suffered from this ailment for 20 years because of a bad car accident in 1990. I have struggled with total body pain day in and day out. I was very fearful of this getting worse. After 20 years of dealing with this, I kind of made peace with it, and found things that somewhat worked to some affect. I already had days, though, where it was so bad it was debilitating. I could not imagine it being worse than I had already experienced, but I knew it was possible. Little did I know how bad it would get. MY SOLUTIONS: I took Tylenol whenever I needed it to help sooth some of the pain. I also keep a prescription for Lidoderm Patches. I have used these patches for over 20 years, and in my opinion, they are worth their weight in gold! I use them any time I have excruciating pain anywhere on my body. The patches measure approximately 3″ X 4″ and are sticky on the back. They can be cut in half or smaller if need be. Sometimes I use a whole patch on my back. And then sometimes I cut them in half and use them on my ankles or shoulder or anywhere else I have pain. I also am a big fan of HOT SHOWERS or BATHS. For some reason, either of these seem to help, albeit temporarily, just enough to take the edge off.
- SENSITIVITY TO THE GUMS– The gums become super sensitive to brushing and flossing during chemo treatments. It is recommended to get a very soft toothbrush and not to floss at all during treatment. The reason for this is that any abrasion on the gums can cause excessive bleeding and a lot of pain. I was very careful when brushing my teeth. The hardest part for me was not being able to floss. I religiously floss and I was worried about getting out of the habit of flossing. But it is necessary. I did try to floss in the beginning. But the amount of blood that accumulated in my mouth scared me to death. So I weened myself off of flossing. SOLUTION: Purchase a very soft toothbrush and use it religiously every single day. The teeth and gums can be adversely affected by Cancer, so it is highly suggested to pay close attention to your gums and teeth. Also, it helps to purchase a special toothpaste designed for Cancer patients. Many cancer patients use Biotene. I did not try Biotene. I found a special toothpaste at New Leaf Health Food Stores here in California. I cannot remember the name of it. I will research it and try to find it.
- EXCESSIVE DRY SKIN – This was and still is very difficult for me to deal with. I had never really had dry skin issues. Shortly after I started chemo, though, my skin on my arms, legs and face became very, very dry and extremely wrinkled. I think this is what I fretted most about. And nothing seemed to help me. I tried every lotion my doctors told me to buy, and nothing worked for me. I tried Goldbond, Vaseline Intensive Care and several others to no avail. My doctor then told me to try CeraVe by Coria. I was really hoping this would work as it is very expensive! It was about $14.00 for a 16 ounce jar. This did seem to moisturize my skin, but it was kind of sticky, and in the end, it also did not really work. Then a friend told me to try Calendula Lotion by Boiron. It is a first aid and homeopathic lotion with natural ingredients. It also is pretty expensive. I believe it was about $8.00 for 6.7 fl. oz. This seemed to work the best. However, my skin still looks terrible because I believe the drugs permanently damaged my skin. Also note: when I use this lotion on my skin, my skin immediately turns bright red, but it only lasts a few minutes and then my skin goes back to its natural color. So do not be alarmed if this happens to you. However, if redness lasts longer than a few minutes, I would suspect you might be allergic. So PLEASE BE CAREFUL!
- HEADACHES – I had suffered from really bad migraines through my teens, my 20’s, and my 30’s. I finally got them under control in my 40’s, and very seldom had them. Of course when I did, they were usually whoppers! So once again, I was very fearful of headaches. And my concerns were warranted. I suffered horrendous headaches every few days, especially right after chemo treatments. Unfortunately, for me, NOTHING WORKED to alleviate these. I just had to suffer through them!
- SEVERE HOT AND COLD FLASHES – This was another symptom that hit me especially hard. When I went through menopause, I had a terrible time with hot and cold flashes. They had lasted over 5 years and really created havoc in my life. When they finally stopped, I thought that I would never revisit them again. Little did I know that these even occurred during cancer. When I found out that I was going to be thrown back into menopause, I was very upset. As it turned out, these were even worse, if that is even possible, than they were the first time around. I would get so hot that I would almost pass out. I would start ripping off my clothes and my face would turn beet red. The hot would last about 10 minutes, and then I would start freezing! All of a sudden, I would start putting my clothes back on and piling on the blankets. These episodes would last about 30 minutes each and they would occur about 20 times a day. It seemed like all I did was strip and then pile on the blankets. It was totally exhausting. Again, I did not have a solution to this problem.
- BOWEL PROBLEMS – I guess I would have to say that this was the biggest fear of all. I had been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome 3 years prior and had been very sick for the last 3 years. I had just barely finally started making some progress in getting this disease under control. Now here I was, putting more poisons in my body, and I knew that my bowel system was not going to tolerate it. And boy, did I hit the nail on the head on this one. I got sicker and sicker as time went on. I was barely eating, but I probably would not have eaten even if I could have. What little I did eat wreaked havoc on my system on a daily basis. My body refused to expel my food, and it started backing up. I would go 4 to 5 days without a bowel movement. Of course, this made me deathly sick. The doctors kept trying to help me, but nothing seemed to work. They tried every prescription under the sun, and some of these prescriptions were $400.00 a bottle! Yes, you read that right! $400.00! It took almost 6 months before one doctor finally came up with a SOLUTION: MIRALAX. It took about a week for this to kick in, but when it did, if I took it religiously every single day, I did not have any problems! Another lifesaver, but I just could not understand WHY they did not prescribe this FIRST!! They could have saved me tons of money and months of severe cramping!
- LACK OF APPETITE – I really, really struggled with this! I just was not hungry AT ALL! I was so sick that I had no attraction to food. Most of the time, the sight of it or the smell could cause me to start gagging. I stayed away from everything and had absolutely NO DESIRE to eat. Hence, this is the reason I lost almost 100 lbs. in 4 months. Also, I could not keep anything down, and when everything makes you throw up, you get to where you do not even want to try to eat. So I gave up eating. But I eventually found a SOLUTION: My son told me to try protein shakes made with almond milk. I was very skeptical and scared, but I knew I had to get something into my body or I was going to die from starvation. I was not getting any nutients AT ALL! Hallejuah! This actually worked for me! I drank 2 shakes a day for the next 9 months. That is just about all I had. Occasionally, very occasionally, I could eat a piece of fruit or a cooked vegetable, but this rarely happened. The shakes helped sustain me for the next 9 months. I did not gain any weight, but I also did not lose ANYMORE weight!
- FOOD TASTES LIKE CARDBOARD – This is an interesting symptom. In my case, I really dreaded this! I was afraid that if I was barely eating, if the food tasted like cardboard I might not eat at all. However, of all of the symptoms, this one really surprised me and my doctors. Instead of food tasting like cardboard, my tastebuds erupted and food tasted absolutely DELICIOUS. Honestly, I had never tasted food and relished the taste as I did after cancer. As stated above, I could not eat during my cancer ordeal. Once I finished cancer and chemo, I was really scared to death to try and eat. My husband urged me to try small amounts of food, and I was totally shocked when my tastebuds exploded! My doctors said they had never heard of this. Thank God! Finally, something positive from all of this! And guess what? This symptom did not go away! Food still tastes absolutely heavenly! Unfortunately, if you have this symptom, I have no suggestion for you. You have to be really careful with spices when you have chemo also. Spices can really upset your stomach, and believe me, you do not want this to happen. You will spend all of your time in the bathroom.
- LIGHT SENSITIVITY – This is one symptom that I really struggled with. And, I continue to struggle with it. As soon as I started chemo, my eyes became EXTREMELY sensitive to light. I had to sleep with something over my eyes at all times. Any light at all would make my eyes hurt. To this day, I am still struggling with this side effect. I sleep with something over my eyes at all times. When I first wake up and take off the cover, my eyes have a hard time adjusting to the daylight. Even during the day sometimes, my eyes are extremely sensitive to light. Most people I talked to did not experience this side effect. So I hope you do not. However, if you do, here is my SOLUTION: Find a large knit hat that you can pull down over your eyes. I did this the entire time I had cancer and it was a wonderful solution to an irritating problem.
- EXHAUSTION – This is another symptom that has been very hard for me to deal with. I am a Type A personality, and I constantly want to do things and accomplish things. During cancer, the exhaustion was so overwhelming that I had a very hard time, in the beginning, getting used to the fact that I was going to spend at least a year doing absolutely nothing! Well, other than fighting for my life! Truth be told, I was so sick and so weak most days that I could not even fathom doing anything. It has taken me over 2 years of struggling. I am just now beginning to get my life back as I knew it before cancer. And my SOLUTION: If you are the least bit tired, GO TO BED! You do not have to sleep. Just resting can restore some of your energy. However, cancer and chemo have a tendency to zap your energy. It is very important to learn to say NO to a lot of things. DO NOT OVERDO IT! You will pay for days, and in some cases, weeks for pushing your body beyond its limits.
- SLEEPLESSNESS – I have covered this in several posts, but I will elaborate here also. From the very first moment that I was told I had cancer, I could not sleep! My mind just would not stop with the “what ifs”. Sleeplessness is very unfortunate when you have cancer. Your body needs every ounce of rest that it can get to try and heal itself while one is going through this awful ordeal. All of the stress and worry make this problem even more disasterous. I cannot say this problem was worse than any of the others. When you combine 7 or 8 problems/symptoms, this disease can make your existence totally HELL!! I literally felt like I was living a nightmare, and was not sure I would ever get out of it. Sometimes I look back and I honestly do not know how I survived all of these problems! I struggled with this problem for the first 3 months and was finally so exhausted that I could not even sleep at all! I had to do something! The doctors had no answers! I would be so totally exhausted that I literally thought I was going to drop dead, and I would go to bed. It was as if my body re-activated itself and would not let me sleep! My SOLUTION: I finally gave in and purchased marijuana for sleeping. OMG! The first night I took it, I slept for 12+ hours straight through! I was totally shocked when I woke up and looked at the time.FINALLY! SLEEP!! This worked for about a week. Then—I started having horrific nightmares. This was due to the THC- the hallucinigenic in the marijuana. But honestly, for me, lack of sleep was worse than the nightmares. And oddly enough, I did feel a tiny bit better in the mornings when I woke up, even with the horrible dreams.
- NEUROPATHY – Thank Goodness! THIS IS ONE PROBLEM I DID NOT HAVE much problem with! I did get some temporary tingling in both of my hands and both of my feet. However, it was bothersome, but not devastating. I tolerated it for about 6 months, and then it slowly went away! Again, this is very unusual. Most people develop neuropathy and have it for the remainder of their lives. Neuropathy can also cause extreme burning, especially in the feet. My husband was diagnosed with kidney, colon and liver cancer in 2010. He is a walking miracle as he survived all 3 of these cancers! He does, however, have a very serious problem with neuropathy. His is so bad that sometimes he cannot even feel his feet. This can be dangerous, so if you develop neuropathy, be sure to tell your doctors. Some people describe it as walking on hot coals. I am so thankful that I did not have a long term problem with this.
- CHEMO BRAIN – This is the term given to what happens to your brain while undergoing chemotherapy. I had no idea what a toll this would take on my brain. My Chemo Brain started almost immediately after I had my first chemo treatment. It is my understanding that the toxic drugs can have a temporary OR a more PERMANENT effect on the brain. Again, one has no idea what the outcome will be for each individual that goes through this. We all respond differently to the drugs, and that also applies to how they affect our brain. When I was going through chemotherapy, I literally lost my brain! I could not remember what day it was, and many times, I was off by a week or two! I could not remember if I ate, went to the bathroom, took my medication, and could not even remember names. Many times I could not even remember my sons name or my husbands name. Thank God they totally understood and did not get their feelings hurt. My husband had to keep track of EVERYTHING and was responsible for seeing that I got to appointments, took my medication, drank my shakes, even bathing, etc. The other problem that occurred was mixing up words. For example, I might say: “Peach me the hands” instead of “Hand me the peaches.” Or it might come out: “Pand me the Heaches.” We actually started laughing at some of the things that came out of my mouth. My brain was totally disorganized and sentences always came out mixed up. I did learn about a SOLUTION about half way through my ordeal. It turns out that if you play games, I am talking video games or crossword, these activities help rewire your brain. I started playing games, and I swear, it worked! I really feel this is the reason I regained as much of my brain as I did. I was scared to death when I was going through Chemo Brain! I was really fearful of what kind of life I would have if I did not regain my brain power. I recently learned about an online game called LUMOSITY. It is free and it gives you 3 games per day to play. It changes to 3 totally different games every 24 hours. If you want to play all of the games (about 45 different games) you can pay a small fee. The games challenge a variety of cognitive skills. Some of these skills are: speed, memory, attention, flexibility, problem solving, language, math and mindfulness. Check it out and let me know what you think of the games.
- LYMPHEDEMA – this is a condition that arises for some cancer patients after surgery. When you have breast cancer, even at Stage 2, some lymph nodes will probably be removed from one’s armpit. When these lymph nodes are removed, it causes a problem for blood circulation in the armpit. Without the proper circulation, swelling can occur in the armpit and/or in the affected arm. And on rare occasions, Lymphedema can occur in other extremities like the legs. I only had a minimal number of lymph nodes removed under my arm. Some women can have a lot of lymph nodes removed. Lymph node removal can be anywhere from 2 lymph nodes to 20+ lymph nodes. The more lymph nodes that are removed cause more concern for developing this condition. It is very important to stay on top of this condition. If you develop this condition, you most likely will battle it for the remainder of your life! And it is a very serious condition, so PLEASE DO NOT TAKE LIGHTLY! Again, thank goodness, I did not develop this condition, and as of this date, I have not developed it. Another word of warning — Just because you do not develop it after surgery or during chemotherapy does not mean you will not develop it! You can actually develop Lymphedema weeks, months and even years after you have had breast cancer surgery. I have another article relating to Lymphedema on my website that goes into all of the details of Lymphedema, so I am not going to repeat it here. However, I was so scared of developing this that I kind of came up with something that I did after my surgery and still do to this day. I do not know if it really helps or not, but so far it has worked for me. SOLUTION: Buy one of those rough hand gloves, or a set, that are sold in the cosmetics section for your face and/or body. I cannot remember, for the life of me, what they are called. See, I still have some brain farts occasionally! But they are a set of gloves that have a rough texture on both sides. You use them for washing your face mostly. You can also use them on your body. I used them all over my breasts and arms and chest every time I showered and I still do. The gloves are supposed to stimulate your skin, and so my reasoning is that stimulating my skin would also stimulate my blood circulation. It seems to work, in my case anyway. The first couple of times I used them on my skin, my skin turned really red and it kind of hurt. That hurt quickly turned to tingling. Within a few minutes, the redness and tingling subsided. I felt invigorated afterward, and started using them all over my body each time I showered. I still do this to this day, and I have had no symptoms of Lymphedema!
I really hope that I have helped you in some way with all of this information. I have lived it and this is how I managed to survive CANCER! Please know that these are all from my personal experience, and I am not saying they will work for anyone/everyone. But some of them might be worth a try! Cancer is a relentless journey, and it is not for the weak. You have to become a warrior if you want to defeat this horrible disease. I really want to help anyone that is thrown down this rabbit hole! I am here for you! If you have any questions, need support in any way or just want to shoot the breeze, PLEASE know that I am here for you. Contact me in the comment box below, and I will get back to you. The most important advice I have: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF!