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Tips for avoiding the adverse effects of chemotherapy

Feb 09, 2012

This is a second column about chemotherapy. The first column provided general information. This one is about combating side effects of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment that uses drugs to kill malignant cells, bacteria, viruses and fungi. Chemotherapy has many unpleasant side effects. These include hair loss, nausea and vomiting, mouth sores, diarrhea, constipation, pain, fatigue, fever, bleeding, bruising, poor appetite, weight loss and reduced immunity.

Each patient reacts differently to these drugs. Most side effects subside after treatment ends. Many side effects can be prevented or treated. Here are ways to counter three of the nastiest side effects.


Hair loss

Hair loss is not certain with chemotherapy. Whether you lose hair depends upon the medication and dose your doctor prescribes. Patients usually regrow hair three to 10 months after treatment.

Several treatments have been investigated as possible ways to prevent hair loss, but none has been absolutely effective.

Ice packs placed on your head slow blood flow to your scalp. This technique makes it less likely that the drugs will have an effect on your scalp.

Minoxidil (Rogaine) is a topical drug for stimulating hair growth and slowing balding. It hasn't been shown to prevent hair loss from chemotherapy, but there is research demonstrating that it may speed up your hair regrowth after treatment.

While there is no proven way to prevent hair loss, there are steps you can take to reduce the frustration.

• Don't treat your hair with dyes or heat; this can help you hold onto your hair longer during treatment.

• It's easier to make the transition to less hair if you start out with it cut short.

• Some people shave their heads; they feel this looks better than losing hair in clumps. And, a shaved head makes wearing a wig easier.

• Before you start treatment, make decisions about possible head coverings.

• Sleep on a satin pillowcase that won't catch hair.

• Use a soft brush and gentle shampoo.


Nausea and vomiting

There are anti-nausea drugs that are given to people receiving chemotherapy. Known as anti-emetics, the medications prevent both nausea and vomiting. These drugs are given intravenously or by pill.

Here are some tips to help with gastrointestinal distress:

• Eat smaller meals more frequently. Rest after eating.

• Eat a light meal a few hours before treatment.

• Stay away from sweets and fatty foods.

• Drink small quantities of liquids throughout the day.

• Avoid strong odors.

• Meditate often.


Mouth sores

Chemotherapy can have the following oral side effects: pain, dryness, burning, peeling, swelling, infection and change in taste. These effects can make it hard to eat and talk.

About a month before beginning chemotherapy. you should visit your dentist because side effects are more likely in patients with unhealthy mouths. The dentist can clean your teeth, take x-rays, treat any mouth problems and teach you how to prevent oral side effects.

These tips can help prevent and treat a sore mouth:

• Keep your mouth moist by drinking a lot of water and sucking on ice chips.

• Chew sugarless gum.

• Keep your mouth, tongue and gums clean with an extra-soft toothbrush.

• Use a fluoride toothpaste.

• Don't use mouthwashes containing alcohol.

• Floss gently.

• Rinse your mouth several times a day with a solution of a quarter teaspoon each of baking soda and salt in one quart of warm water. Rinse with clear water.

• Always sip a drink with meals.

• Eat soft foods that are easy to chew. Take small bites.

• Don't use toothpicks.

• Stay away from foods that are acidic, hot or spicy.

• No alcoholic beverages or tobacco.

If you would like to read more columns, you can order a copy of “How to be a Healthy Geezer” at www.healthygeezer.com.

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