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How to Cope with Chemotherapy’s Blood and Nervous System Side Effects

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The same properties that make chemotherapy drugs effective cancer killers also cause them to damage healthy cells in your bone marrow, blood and nervous system. The damage, although often temporary, can make cancer patients vulnerable to a series of side effects and secondary conditions, including bleeding, anemia, infections, numbness in the extremities, and memory loss.

If you’re experiencing blood or nervous system problems as a result of undergoing chemotherapy (commonly called chemo), there are steps you and your doctor can take to weather the negative aspects of cancer treatment.

Everyone responds to chemo differently and not all chemotherapy will cause the side effects listed here. Each drug interacts with normal cells in its own unique way. To help you prepare for your treatment, be sure and ask your doctor which side effects are common to the chemotherapy you’ll be undergoing.

  • Bleeding: The cells that make sure you stop bleeding when you’ve been cut or bruised are called platelets. Chemotherapy can lower the number of platelets you have, making you more susceptible to bruising, nose bleeds, and clotting failure. If your platelet count becomes dangerously low, your doctor may prescribe a drug that will help your body produce new platelets.

    While you’re undergoing chemo, you should avoid contact sports or other physical activity that greatly increases your risk of cuts and bruises. Bleeding gums are common, so use a very soft-bristle toothbrush and stay away from floss and toothpicks. Opt for an electric razor instead of a manual. When using knives or scissors, wear gloves to protect your hands from sharp blades. Because internal tissue can be especially prone to injury, avoid using tampons, suppositories, rectal thermometers, and enemas.

  • Fatigue and anemia: Chemotherapy can lower the number of red blood cells, pushing you into anemia and the extreme fatigue that is characteristic of the condition. Listen to your body. Rest and limit your activities.

    If you are also experiencing shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, leg pain or swelling, or rapid heartbeat, call your doctor right away. She may prescribe iron-rich vitamins or medication to promote red blood cell growth. You may need to undergo a blood transfusion to replace your lost red blood cells.

  • Increased infections: Some chemotherapies destroy the white blood cells that help your body fight infection, leaving you vulnerable to illness. While you’re in treatment, it’s important that you wash your hands and use hand sanitizer throughout the day. Keep your hands away from your nose and mouth. Avoid crowds and keep your distance from people suffering from colds and flu.

    Your doctor will keep an eye on your white blood count, but developing an infection during chemo is serious business. If you have a fever of more than 100 degrees, chills, sweats, or any other sign of infection such as cough, headache, or sinus pain, call your doctor right away.

  • Loss of sensation: You may be experiencing tingling, numbness or pain in your feet or hands that is affecting your mobility and agility. Most of these nerve problems disappear within a year of completing chemo or when the dose of chemo is lowered.

    In the meantime, wear flat, comfortable shoes with rubber soles for traction. Use a cane to steady your stance. Wear gripper gloves when working with kitchen utensils or gardening tools. Install rubber bath mats or shower hand rails to make getting in and out of the tub easier. If your sense of hot and cold has been compromised, be sure and use a thermometer to measure water temperature in the bath before you get in.

  • Cognitive difficulties: Confusion and recall problems are common enough that cancer patients have nicknamed the experience “chemobrain.” Although chemobrain usually clears when treatment ends, you may find that you have to change your behaviors a bit in the interim to help you manage your day-to-day life.

    Keep a notebook handy and write down as many appointments, tasks, names, and numbers as you need to for easy reference later on. When you need to focus on a task, eliminate as many distractions as you can. Retire to a quiet room. Turn off the TV and mute the phone. Give your brain the fuel it needs by eating healthy foods and getting enough sleep.

The effects of chemo therapy on your blood and nervous system not only can have detrimental effects on your quality of life, but can also be dangerous. Getting emotional support and practical advice from fellow cancer patients and cancer professionals can help you cope with these challenges. The National Cancer Institute has a directory of organizations that provide assistance to cancer patients.

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