Caregiver Blog: Understanding the Effects of Chemotherapy

Article Categories: Caregiver Corner & Caregiver Skills

Cancer is a terrifying ordeal for any patient, especially if they undergo the primary treatment, chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the use of medication to prevent cancer cells from multiplying and growing. Unlike other treatments that specifically target cancer cells, such as radiation and surgery, chemotherapy affects the whole body—all the rapidly dividing cells. The side effects are related to this fact and caregivers should know what to expect to better care for patients.

1. Nausea and vomiting

According to experts, chemotherapy stimulates the vomiting center of the brain, making patients feel that uncomfortable nauseated sensation after treatment. They feel sick to their stomach and likely to throw up. Patients usually experience this side effect after high doses of the drug and if they do not respond well to antiemetic medications, or those that prevent nausea and vomiting.

What to do:

Have an emesis basin within the patient’s reach as well as a glass of water. Note that if they make a mess, they are likely to feel embarrassed, so be ready to assist them. Avoid passing judgment.

Provide small frequent meals, too. Choose foods that are soft, dry, and without a strong smell. Give them something cool to drink 30 minutes before meals so they don't feel bloated, triggering nausea. Offer fluids throughout the day (except during meals) to replenish what they lose during vomiting.

2. Hair loss

Patients who receive chemotherapy lose their hair because the roots are some of the body’s rapidly dividing cells, which are affected. Baldness can lower a patient’s self-esteem, so they don’t feel good about themselves.

What to do:

If they want to use a scarf, hat, or wig to cover their heads, help put them on.

3. Fatigue

Patients who receive chemotherapy usually have low energy levels and feel weak. This is because many healthy cells are destroyed alongside cancer cells. It can also be because the body is spending energy to repair itself.

Take note that fatigue is already a common symptom of cancer and, after treatment, the patient tires even more easily.

What to do:

Provide adequate rest periods during procedures or activities to give them time to gather their strength. Avoid overly tiring activities.

4. Anemia and being prone to infections

Chemotherapy affects the bone marrow, also made up of rapidly dividing cells. Bone marrow makes blood cells so, after chemotherapy, the patient will not have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body or white blood cells to fight off infections.

Because of these side effects, patients look pale, feel weak, and easily catch infectious diseases. The patient might also have bleeding problems.

What to do:

For anemia, follow the tips from #3.

To avoid infections, always wash your hands before and after patient care procedures and keep patients away from people with active infections. Be extra particular with the patient’s personal hygiene measures. Clean and sanitize the surroundings. Cook food thoroughly before serving.

If the patient has bleeding problems, use an electric razor when shaving. Report extreme tiredness, fever, or any signs of bleeding.

5. Mouth sores

The shiny lining of the mouth is also affected by chemotherapy, so patients tend to develop sores. It makes eating painful and difficult.

What to do:

Avoid serving spicy and salty foods. You may also give them ice chips to dull the pain.

6. Loss of appetite

Take note that cancer causes loss of appetite and chemotherapy can make this problem worse. And with the dry, bland foods recommended to prevent nausea and vomiting, it could be a real challenge to stimulate a patient’s appetite.

What to do:

Make meal trays attractive and be creative in your food presentation. Small, frequent meals are also helpful.

Caregivers are in a position to help cancer patients take on the side effects of chemotherapy, so don’t hesitate to lend a hand whenever possible!


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