Managing the Side Effects of Treatment

Facing the challenges that accompany a cancer diagnosis is stressful, but you are not alone. Your health care team will use supportive care services to help manage any physical side effects and emotional distress that stem from your illness and treatment. The goal is to help you maintain a good quality of life from the time you’re diagnosed through treatment and survivorship.

Also called palliative care, supportive care services are often confused with hospice care. Palliative care can benefit anyone with a serious or life-threatening illness. It is available at any time, whereas hospice care is reserved for end-of-life care.

These services may be offered at the hospital, cancer center or medical clinic and may be covered by your insurance plan, Medicare or Medicaid.

Potentially Severe Side Effects

These are not common but can occur with certain types of treatment. Ask your doctor whether you are at risk, how to identify the symptoms and when to seek emergency care. Report symptoms immediately if they occur. The side effects can be easily corrected if they are treated rapidly. They include the following:

  • Cytokine release syndrome can occur if immune cells affected by treatment rapidly release large amounts of cytokines into the bloodstream. Symptoms may include headache, fever, nausea, rash, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and difficulty breathing.
  • Immune-related adverse events (irAEs) may occur with certain immunotherapy drugs. They can occur if the immune system becomes overstimulated by treatment and causes inflammation in one or more organs or systems in the body. Some irAEs can develop rapidly, becoming severe and even life-threatening without swift medical attention.
  • Infection can occur as a result of a low white blood cell count (neutropenia) or other factors. Contact your doctor immediately – do not wait until the next day – if you have any of these symptoms: oral temperature over 100.4°F, chills or sweating; body aches, chills and fatigue with or without fever; coughing, shortness of breath or painful breathing; abdominal pain; sore throat; mouth sores; painful, swollen or reddened skin; pus or drainage from an open cut or sore; pain or burning during urination; pain or sores around the anus; or vaginal discharge or itching.
  • Infusion-related reactions most frequently occur with treatment given intravenously (IV) through a vein in your arm, usually soon after exposure to the drug. Reactions are generally mild, such as itching, rash or fever. More serious symptoms such as shaking, chills, low blood pressure, dizziness, breathing difficulties or irregular heartbeat can be serious or even fatal without medical intervention.
  • Tumor lysis syndrome (TLS) may occur after treatment of a fast-growing cancer, especially certain blood cancers. Symptoms may include vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps or twitches, neuropathy and decreased urination. TLS can potentially cause damage to the kidneys, heart, liver or other organs.

Common Physical Side Effects

Though most cancer treatments have side effects, you likely won’t have all of them (see Table 1). Every person responds differently, even to the same type of treatment. Be alert for “late effects” that can occur months or even years after treatment ends.

Emotional Side Effects

It is common to experience anger, fear, guilt, insecurity, loneliness and other emotions. Taking care of your emotional well-being will help you cope better and even manage side effects. Get immediate medical attention for thoughts of suicide or death.

Additional Types Of Support

Social support, such as one-on-one buddy programs that pair you with another person who has the same type of cancer as you, can be invaluable.

Spiritual support may be provided by a chaplain or spiritual care advisor at the hospital or from your religious community. Spiritual support is available to you even if you do not consider yourself a religious person.

Financial support is available from a social worker or financial counselor. The stress and anxiety of paying for treatment and other related expenses can negatively affect your well-being.



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