When linking the term side effects with cancer, horrific visions pop into most people’s heads. If you haven’t started the treatment leg of your journey yet, you may be imagining yourself bald, frail, and tired, with your face glued to the toilet bowl.
But while some treatment-related side effects may be serious or debilitating, many of them are minor and only minimally impact a person’s quality of life. In addition, very few side effects persist for long periods of time, like months or years. Most last only days or weeks.
Putting side effects of cancer treatments in perspective
The goal of cancer treatment is to remove or kill cancer cells while sparing the healthy organs and tissues throughout the body. To achieve this, you may receive any number of treatments, from surgery, to radiation, to chemotherapy, to an array of different medications. All these treatments are associated with their own set of side effects, some major and some minor.
Although the list of related side effects can be scary, you’re unlikely to experience the vast majority of them, and you may even experience none of them. Everyone is different.
Also, keep in mind that when clinical trials are conducted to test new drugs and treatment regimens, medical professionals are required to report all adverse effects attributable to the treatment being evaluated.
In some cases, however, it can be very difficult to determine if a correlation may actually exist between an adverse event and the drug being evaluated. But to err on the side of caution, the adverse event will still be included in the drug labeling information when the drug gets approved.
Therefore, despite the list of side effects looking long and scary, you really should just think of them as potential effects, not definitive ones.
Focusing on factors that may increase the risk of cancer treatment side effects
Numerous factors can increase your risk of experiencing certain side effects during treatment. By understanding what these risk factors are, you can take steps to mitigate them and prevent complications.
For example, one of the potential side effects of many chemotherapy drugs is a reduction in a type of bone marrow cells known as platelets. These cells are responsible for preventing and stopping bleeding. Certain medications, including aspirin, are known to interfere with platelet function.
This effect may be favorable in certain non-cancer settings, such as for various cardiovascular problems, but it can lead to major bleeding and other serious consequences when receiving chemotherapy. As a result, your doctor will likely advise you to avoid taking aspirin and similar medications while you’re receiving chemo. Be sure to closely follow your oncologist’s recommendations.
Also, avoid drinking alcohol while receiving treatment. Alcohol can cause many adverse reaction, depending on which medications it’s paired with. For example, drinking alcohol at the same time that you’re taking antiemetics (medications to prevent nausea and vomiting) may cause short-term drowsiness and lead to dry mouth and dry eyes.
Whatever you do, be honest with your doctor about your history and what medications and dietary and herbal supplements you’re taking. Because numerous factors can increase the risk of certain side effects, only your doctor and cancer-care team will be able to properly assess your risk and explain in detail what you can do to reduce your specific risks.
But they can only do this if they have a clear picture of your history and situation.
How side effects can affect nutrition
Cancer treatments often come with a long list of potential side effects. These effects may make it challenging to eat, alter your body’s ability to digest and use nutrients properly, and/or affect your body’s nutrient needs. Difficulty taking in nutrients is the most prevalent problem, because almost all symptoms can make it hard to consume nutrients.
When you have an upset stomach or a sore mouth or throat, or when food doesn’t taste right, eating is no longer enjoyable and you may not feel like eating.
There are also the potential digestive challenges caused by treatments. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments, for instance, can cause lactose intolerance, temporarily impairing your ability to digest milk products. This can lead to various gastrointestinal issues, including gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
If you experience diarrhea, there’s a good chance you’ll absorb less water, electrolytes like sodium and potassium, and other nutrients like zinc. This can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances; proper electrolyte levels are essential for maintaining normal cellular function, muscle action, and blood chemistry. So, as you can see, there’s a cascade of effects.
How food can ease certain side effects
Some foods will aggravate many of the side effects that can be experienced during cancer treatment, while others can ease many of the side effects. For example, foods containing or prepared with a high amount of fat can be difficult to digest or absorb, making an upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea worse.
On the other hand, low-fat, high-protein foods can help alleviate nausea and enable you to maintain lean muscle mass and strength.
You should come to appreciate that food can be used as medicine to help relieve side effects. For example, ginger can be used to settle an upset stomach. Honey may help heal a sore mouth or throat. Glutamine (an amino acid found in high-protein foods) and probiotics (the healthy bacteria in yogurt and kefir) may help nourish the body and reduce side effects that affect the digestive tract.
These are just a few examples of how food can help ease side effects.