Blood Cancer Awareness Month 2023: Strategies To Cope Up With Chemotherapy and Radiation


Chemotherapy and radiation therapy fight cancer by destroying cancer cells. Although chemo and radiation are designed to kill cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue, these treatments sometimes damage or destroy normal cells which may cause side effects. According to Dr. Soumya Mukherjee, who is a Consultant at Bone Marrow Transplant (Stem Cell Transplant), Haemato Oncology Narayana Superspeciality Hospital, Howrah said, “Coping with chemotherapy and radiation therapy can be challenging, but with the right strategies, it is possible to navigate this journey more comfortably.”

“Firstly, prioritize self-care. Maintain a balanced diet rich in nutrients to support your immune system, and stay hydrated. Regular and light exercise boosts strength and mood. On the flip side, avoid smoking and alcohol, as they interfere with treatment effectiveness and healing. Overexertion and excessive stress should also be minimized, as they weaken the body’s ability to recover,” Dr. Mukherjee added.

Side Effects Of Chemotherapy And Radiation And Strategies To Manage 

Dr. Ashay Karpe, who is the Founder & Director at Sunrise Oncology Centre listed down the side effeccts and also mentioned the strategies to manage it.

1. Fatigue

Fatigue is the most common side effect of chemotherapy and radiation. During treatment, one’s body is not only fighting cancer, but it’s also working to repair cell damage from treatment. Here are some ways to manage it:

  • Know your energy levels.  Understanding energy levels can help to plan daily activities more effectively.
  • Plan, organize and prioritize daily activities.  
  • Balance activity with rest. Taking short, frequent rest breaks is just as important as staying active.
  • Balance light daily exercise, like walking, with relaxing activities, like reading or meditating. 
  • Focus on wellness. Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet, getting enough exercise and sleep, and managing stress are always important. 

2. Hair loss

Hair loss during treatment usually recovers within two to three months after chemotherapy and three to six months after radiation therapy. 

  • Plan for changes in appearance. One can have a wig made that matches hair’s color and style. Patients can plan outfits that incorporate hats, head wraps or scarves. 
  • Be gentle with hair. Avoid frequent shampooing or excessively combing or brushing hair. Use warm water to wash hair, and gently pat dry with a towel.
  • Protect head and scalp. Protect your head from the sun, cold and wind by wearing a head covering when outside, like a cap, turban, scarf or a hat made of cotton or a cotton blend.

3. Skin Changes

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause skin irritation, itchiness, dryness, redness and swelling. These treatments can also cause skin to change colour or darken. Radiation therapy may cause skin sores that one needs to monitor for infection. 

  • Wash with care. Gently cleanse your skin using lukewarm water and mild soap. 
  • Avoid products that may irritate your skin. 
  • Don’t apply direct heat or cold to your skin. Avoid using heating pads, hot water bottles or ice packs on sensitive areas of skin.
  • Allow your skin to breathe. Avoid tight-fitting clothing or clothes made from harsh fabrics that can irritate skin
  • Shield skin from direct sunlight.  Wear a large-brimmed hat or protective clothing to minimize sun exposure. Apply sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher to skin which is exposed.

4. Nausea, Vomiting And Diarrhoea:

Both chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. The type of medicine one is taking, how it’s administered, the dose and how frequently one is taking it all influence whether patient experience these symptoms. 

  • Get enough fluids. Drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of fluid per day to prevent dehydration. 
  • Eat mindfully. Avoid eating foods that are hard to digest, such as spicy, fried, or high-fat foods. Avoid milk and dairy products if they’re causing diarrhea. Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day instead of three large meals. 
  • Time meals around cancer treatments. Eating immediately before or after cancer treatment can increase the risk of nausea. 
  • Rest and relax. It’s a good idea to rest after eating to allow food to digest. Some people find relaxation methods or self-hypnosis decreases nausea.
  • Take medicine as needed. Oncologists might prescribe medicines that can help with symptoms and prevent dehydration.

5. Loss Of Apetite And Eating Difficulty:

  • Changes in sense of taste. 
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing. Radiation to your mouth or throat can damage the tissue, making it painful and difficult to swallow (dysphagia). Mouth sores and a sore throat are common chemotherapy side effects. 
  • Improve the taste of food. Rinsing mouth before eating can help improve the taste of food. To combat metallic tastes, try sour fruits or fruit-flavored sourballs. 
  • Combat dry mouth. Sipping liquids frequently while eating can keep food moist and help with swallowing. Artificial saliva and Biotene products can also help.
  • Be gentle with mouth sores -one can avoid irritating mouth sores by eating foods that are soft and served warm or at room temperature.

6. Sex And fertility Issues

The stress of a cancer diagnosis and treatments can take a toll on sex life. Factors that impact desire — such as fatigue, hormone changes or changes in self-image — may also. Here are ways to manage it.

  • Speak with your healthcare provider about pregnancy plans and fertility preservation before treatment. 
  • Speak openly with health care provider about sex-related issues.

Other Strategies To Combat This:

Dr Vikas Goswami, who is the Associate Director of Medical Oncology, at Max Institute of Cancer Care, Vaishali laid down some of them:

  • Communication: Open and honest communication with your healthcare team is paramount. Discuss potential side effects, treatment goals, and expectations.
  • Support System: Lean on friends and family for emotional support. Consider joining support groups to connect with others who understand your journey.
  • Healthy Lifestyle: Maintain a balanced diet, engage in light exercise, and get adequate rest to boost your immune system and overall well-being.
  • Mindfulness: Practice meditation and relaxation techniques to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Stay Informed: Educate yourself about your treatment plan and ask questions when in doubt.
  • Manage Side Effects: Work closely with your medical team to manage side effects such as nausea, fatigue, and pain.
  • Emotional Well-being: Seek counseling or therapy to address emotional challenges that may arise.
  • Financial Planning: Plan for the financial aspects of treatment, including insurance coverage and assistance programs. 

How Long Do The Side Effects Last?

Dr Mukesh Gupta, who is an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, at Le Nest Hospital, Malad Mumbai said, “Cancer in itself causes so much fear and anxiety that by the time you get it diagnosed properly and reach it’s treatment and management you are already stressed and burdened. Treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation are no doubt stressful to think of but note that with the progress of science and technology these treatments have been made with minimum impact on the body. It’s side effects have also been reduced and medications are also prescribed alongside to counter its impact.”

Additionally, Dr. Ashay Karpe said, “Most side effects go away within a few months after patients finish treatment. Still, some side effects don’t start until months or years after treatment. In some cases, side effects can be permanent. Ask the oncologist about what to expect. Ask them to connect patient to palliative care resources to help manage cancer symptoms and treatment side effects.”

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