Guide To Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy is a type of therapy that utilizes specific types of drugs to treat malignancies and some other severe diseases. Chemotherapy drugs are effective at treating cancer because they target and destroy all cells in the body in the process of cell division. Because malignant cells divide and multiply rapidly, the mechanism of killing all cells in the division process is successful for the elimination of cancerous cells. However, chemotherapy drugs are unable to discern healthy cells in cell division from malignant cells in the cell division process. This pitfall means healthy cells throughout the body, including those in the bone marrow, stomach, hair, mouth, skin, and reproductive organs, are also eliminated if they happen to be in the process of cell division. The harsh side effects known to occur with chemotherapy are the result of the chemotherapy drugs damaging healthy cells and tissues in the body.

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Nausea And Vomiting


A patient undergoing chemotherapy may experience nausea and vomiting as an adverse side effect. Nausea is the unpleasant sensation of needing to vomit, whereas vomiting is the mechanical expulsion of food from the stomach out of the mouth. The part of the brain that controls vomiting is called the vomiting center. Numerous mechanisms can trigger an individual's vomiting center, which can make them feel nauseous and or vomit. Certain drugs that make it into an individual's blood can trigger a part of the brain called the chemoreceptor trigger zone. Chemotherapy agents used to treat an individual's cancer can cause the activation of their chemoreceptor trigger zone when they enter the bloodstream. Other mechanisms are thought to be involved with nausea and vomiting that comes along with chemotherapy, such as anticipatory nausea and vomiting that occurs after three or four treatments. Acute vomiting occurs within twenty-four hours of the individual beginning chemotherapy, and delayed vomiting occurs anytime following the first twenty-four hours.

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Hair Loss


It is common for an individual to experience hair loss as an unwanted side effect when they undergo chemotherapy. We know chemotherapy uses drugs that target and kill all cells in the body undergoing the process of cell division. This method is effective at treating cancer because cancerous cells are almost always in a state of rapid cell division. Chemotherapy drugs cannot distinguish a dividing healthy cell from a dividing cancerous cell. The hair on the scalp and body comes from skin structures with small blood vessels. In healthy individuals, the hair on the scalp grows around half an inch every month. This rapid growth occurs because an individual's hair follicles are some of the fastest dividing cells in their body. Fair follicles go through the cell division process every twenty-three to seventy-two hours. This rapid division means the cells that make up the hair follicles are almost always in the cell division process, and will be affected in a similar way to how cancerous cells in the body are affected. Chemotherapy detects cell division in the hair cells and destroys them. This mechanism causes a patient's hair to fall out. The extent of hair loss is determined by the dosage and frequency of chemotherapy in a patient.

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Weakened Immune System


Patients who undergo chemotherapy may have a weakened immune system throughout and after treatment. The part of an individual's blood responsible for performing the functions of their immune system is referred to as white blood cells. There are numerous different types of white blood cells, but they all play critical roles in an individual's immunity to infection-causing pathogens and toxic substances. White blood cells, like red blood cells and platelets, are produced in a patient's bone marrow. Chemotherapy is administered directly into a patient's bloodstream and kills off a good number of white blood cells. As white blood cell counts drop in an affected individual's blood, their body will be less able to protect them against foreign pathogens that can produce infections such as viruses, parasites, bacteria, fungus, and all of the toxic substances those invaders produce. One of the most important reasons why chemotherapy is administered in cycles is because the body needs time to replenish the cells and components that have been lost. This cycle routine allows the patient's white blood cells to repopulate to an extent before losing more from the next chemotherapy cycle.

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Increased Ease Of Bruising And Bleeding


Drugs used in chemotherapy can cause a patient to experience increased ease of bruising and bleeding. The extent of a healthy individual's bruising and or bleeding with an injury is dictated by the components in their blood referred to as platelets. Platelets are responsible for sticking together and forming the blood clots in the body that stop an individual from losing too much blood, both internally and externally. Platelets are formed in bone marrow, a spongy substance that fills the hollow core of the bones and produces all blood components. Chemotherapy destroys a large number of platelets and platelet forming cells, which can cause a patient's total platelet count to decrease. Decreased platelets mean the body is not able to stop internal or external bleeding as effectively as it should. A patient with low platelets due to chemotherapy treatment may bleed and bruise easily with a small insignificant bump or injury due to this mechanism. Chemotherapy can also cause these side effects through poor nutrition in an affected individual because vitamin K is required for the blood to clot properly.

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Loss Of Appetite


It is not uncommon for a patient undergoing chemotherapy to have a loss of appetite as an adverse side effect of their treatment. Several mechanisms can cause an individual to lose their appetite as a result of their chemotherapy treatment. Chemotherapy is notorious for producing nausea and vomiting, and that alone tends to reduce appetite. Chemotherapy also causes changes to take place in a patient's taste buds, causing taste changes to different flavors and foods. When nothing tastes good, individuals tend to lose their appetite easier. Another way chemotherapy causes patients to lose their appetite is because the drugs cause dry mouth. Dry mouth is uncomfortable and can make an individual less likely to eat regularly. Chemotherapy also can cause the patient to develop mouth sores or ulcers due to the changes in the acidity of the oral cavity. These ulcers or mouth sores can be very painful and more so when attempting to eat food. An association of pain with eating can cause a patient to lose their appetite frequently.

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Issues Breathing


An individual undergoing a treatment regimen that includes the use of chemotherapy may experience breathing issues. Chemotherapy drugs are used to kill cancer cells by finding and eliminating cells in an individual's body that are in the process of cell division. A healthy individual's lungs have countless cells undergoing some stage in the cell division process at any given time. Therefore, the cells in an individual's lungs that are dividing can become damaged or even destroyed by the chemotherapy drugs being used. The death of numerous cells in an individual's lung causes the lung tissues to have decreased alveolar surface area, which means the air capacity of the lungs becomes reduced. A decreased air capacity means less oxygenated air is taken in with each breath, making it difficult for individuals to get an adequate amount of oxygen.

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An individual being treated for cancer with chemotherapy may experience neuropathy. Chemotherapy drugs cause widespread death of cancerous cells and healthy cells in the process of cell division. When large amounts of cells in the body die, their contents are leaked into the tissues around them. These contents are toxic to the other cells and compound the toxicity already present due to the potent substances that make up chemotherapy drugs. The toxic substances in the individual's blood that are the result of chemotherapy treatments can cause damage to the nerve cells. When nerves become damaged, they are not able to conduct electrical impulses the way they should. This malfunction causes a patient to experience symptoms of neuropathy, which include muscle weakness, lack of coordination, sensitivity to touch, prickling or tingling sensations, and numbness.

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Diarrhea Or Constipation


Diarrhea or constipation may occur in a patient undergoing chemotherapy. Cells in the body reproduce through a process known as cell division, which consists of several phases where the cell splits in half into what are known as daughter cells. Cancerous cells grow and divide much more rapidly than healthy cells. Chemotherapy can target and destroy or damage the cells in an individual's body in certain phases of the cell division process. This mechanism is what makes chemotherapy one of the most effective treatments for cancer patients. However, chemotherapy drugs are not able to distinguish between healthy and malignant cells. Therefore, healthy cells in the process of cell division can unintentionally become damaged and destroyed by chemotherapy. The digestive tract is one of the parts of the body with a high cell turnover and reproduction rate, making it especially susceptible to the effects of chemotherapy. Damage to the tissues that make up the small and large intestines due to chemotherapy can cause an individual to become constipated or have diarrhea.

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Mouth Sores


An individual receiving treatment for cancer with chemotherapy may experience frequent and painful mouth sores. Chemotherapy is known for its effectiveness, but also for the harsh side effects it produces. One of the harsh side effects that occur in most patients who undergo chemotherapy is nausea and vomiting. Vomiting is the forceful movement of food from an individual's stomach up their esophagus and out of their mouth. When an individual vomits, potent and corrosive acids from their stomach come in contact with the tissues inside of the mouth. These acids find weaknesses in the oral mucous membranes and cause further damage to these tissues, causing them to ulcerate. This type of ulceration is often referred to as mouth sores. The mouth sores that form due to repeated exposure to acidic juices made by the stomach can become quite large. Some individuals undergoing chemotherapy develop mouth sores in clusters.

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An individual being treated with chemotherapy may develop a chemotherapy rash, also called an EGFR rash. This kind of rash usually starts as warmness in the skin and redness that is comparable to a sunburn. The rash may become scaly, bumpy, and may peel. This type of rash tends to form most often on the face, chest, and upper back. Some patients with this rash develop small pimple-like bumps, referred to as maculopapules, in the affected area. A chemotherapy rash can be painful and affect other parts of the body, like the hair on the scalp and nails in the nail beds. This type of rash develops in fifty to seventy-five percent of patients treated with an EGFR antagonist in their chemotherapy medication cocktail. Although a rash from chemotherapy can be painful and unsightly, it is deemed to be a good sign because it indicates the medications are working.


    Whitney Alexandra