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What to expect from chemotherapy

Most cancer patients are uncomfortable at the mere mention of chemotherapy because of its reputation for causing side effects like nausea, hair loss and lethargy. Yet nothing is more effective against cancer—chemotherapy advances have actually resulted in cures for certain types.

And while some patients do react strongly to chemotherapy, for others side effects may be minimal. By knowing what to expect, you can help make chemotherapy tolerable.

Doctors tailor chemotherapy to each patient based on factors such as the type of cancer, its progress and the patient’s overall health and age. Today, oncologists can choose from more than 50 FDA-approved chemotherapy drugs and even combine drugs to give cancer cells a one-two punch. Some drugs come in pill form or are injected, but most chemotherapy is given intravenously at the doctor’s office.

Attacking tumors

Cancer cells reproduce rapidly. Chemotherapy drugs are programmed to find these rapidly dividing cells and damage them so badly that they are destroyed.

Unfortunately, chemotherapy targets healthy cells, too, like those in our central nervous system, bone marrow, glands and hair follicles. When that happens, nausea, baldness, appetite loss, poor blood clotting, fatigue and infection can set in. Other possible side effects: easy bruising, nosebleeds, bleeding gums and mouth sores.

Managing side effects

Many chemotherapy side effects can be managed, if not eliminated, by drugs and good self-care habits. For the past 10 years, antiemetic drugs have greatly reduced the severity of nausea and drowsiness following treatment. And rest assured: Missing hair grows back once treatment ends.

Here are some useful tips for coping with chemotherapy:

  • Settle down. Use relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga and deep breathing to quiet your mind and relieve discomfort.
  • Make repairs. Eat nutritious meals during chemotherapy to help the body regenerate blood cells and tissue and overcome infections.
  • Handle with care. Check with your doctor before consuming alcohol—it can interfere with your chemotherapy. Some doctors allow alcohol in small amounts to help patients relax and eat better. Nevertheless, certain patients can’t tolerate alcohol even if their doctor approves it.