Chemotherapy medicine is the ammunition we use to hunt down and kill cancer cells in the body. Unfortunately, this powerful medicine can also impact healthy body cells, causing side effects.
I had numerous side effects while fighting ovarian cancer and have outlined them below, along with how I dealt with them. TMI warning! Some of them are not pretty, but we are cancer-warrior sisters here, and I’m an open book when it comes to women’s health. So bravely read on!
Side Effects I Experienced in Alphabetical Order
Bladder Weakness. When your body is going through so much, the muscles around your bladder might weaken. Emptying your bladder frequently and wearing a bladder leakage pad can help. Once, when my husband was teasing me, I warned him that I had to use the bathroom and told him not to make me laugh. Of course, he made me laugh again, and gush! I peed all down my legs onto the kitchen floor. We looked at each other and cracked up even harder. He cleaned up the kitchen, and I went up to shower off. A perk of cancer -- seeing what true love looks like.
Bumps on Head. When my hair started falling out (within 2 weeks after my first chemotherapy session), I had it shaved off. My scalp was fuzzy with the short remains of my hair, which ended up on my pillow. But then my scalp started to hurt. My hair follicles were angry and inflamed, something called folliculitis. They formed a painful rash on my head. To combat this, I wore a fuzzy chemo hat to bed, which cushioned my head and protected my sensitive skin. I also made sure to use non-perfumed soaps and lotions. It did finally calm down as the hair follicles gave up the fight.
Chemo Brain. It’s a real thing. Forgetfulness and misunderstanding can cause so much havoc at a time when things are already crazy. On chemo, I scheduled and bought tickets for an event. The whole family, even those from out of town, arrived at the event on Sunday to find out it had occurred on Saturday. We just never showed up for it. Talk about beating myself up. Ugh! But this is something that befalls almost every chemo warrior. Ask your family for help during this time. Advise people to quietly double check your dates. Write everything down. And then forgive yourself when something falls through the cracks. You’ve got more important things to do, like fighting for your life.
Chemo Reaction. Some chemo recipients get a weird reaction during their first treatment. After all, there is poison dripping into you (remember: it’s good poison), and your body might start to panic. This doesn’t happen to everyone. During my first treatment, I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. I could breathe. It was not an allergy. It was a panic attack of sorts. Once my husband told the nurse, several of them gathered around, stopping the chemo drip and giving me something to calm my body. Those chemo nurses know what to do. They are awesome and deserve rounds of applause. So, if you feel panicky, especially when getting that first dose, don’t keep quiet. Tell someone.
Constipation. The pain medicine I was taking slowed my bowels down. Make sure to talk with your nurse if you aren’t moving your bowels, because it can be a sign of something affecting your intestines. I ended up taking an over-the-counter medicated fiber supplement to help. I also drank lots of liquids and tried to eat high-fiber foods like oatmeal. And prune juice is known to work wonders.
Drippy Nose. Guess what nose hairs are good for? They filter things you breathe in, and they help stop stuff from falling out. When you lose your nose hairs, you might find yourself sniffing back a drippy nose. Be sure to carry tissues. So, where do those little hairs go? I’d like to think they just flew across the room when I sneezed and not down my throat.
Dryness. Chemotherapy agents can dry you out: your eyes, nose, and mouth. Keep things moist with dry-mouth products. I used to swab a little coconut oil in my nose to keep the lining from drying out and causing nose bleeds. Use skin lotion, plain lip moisturizer, and non-medicated artificial tears. And always have a water bottle nearby to sip.
Exhaustion. You might be healing from surgery. You might be combatting constant fear and mourning the loss of your “normal.” You might be comforting children and a spouse or parents. And you are fighting a war in your body. All of this is exhausting, deep-in-your-bones exhausting. I remember going to the store, shopping, and then having to rest in my car for 15 minutes before I could make the 5-minute drive home. Don’t beat yourself up. Take all the help you can get. And nap. I used to refuse to nap because I felt it messed up my sleep schedule. Guess what? Your sleep schedule is going to be messed up by all the medications you’re taking. So, take that nap. And if you’re being asked to do things that will wear you out even more, say no.
Hair Loss. And not just on your head! It was nice not to have to shave though. My last eyelash fell out a week after I finished chemo, but they grew back pretty quickly. For eyebrows, use a little makeup brush and some brown eyeshadow to color them in if you’d like. It looks more natural than eyeliner.
Insomnia. On the flip side of exhaustion is insomnia. You can be exhausted and still not be able to sleep (raises hand). With the steroids I received to keep my body from reacting to the chemo, I would be hyper until they wore off. I spoke fast, and once I went 36 hours before I even yawned. Ugh! There are lots of tips for fighting insomnia, but drug-induced insomnia usually thwarts all of them. My doctor prescribed some sleep-aids, but they didn’t help me, and I hated the sleep-aid side effects. But they might work for you. Otherwise, just try the normal stuff (no caffeine after noon, winding down away from electronics, warm shower, meditation, warm beverage, deep breathing). If you try everything and you’re still up, it will be okay. Talk with your nurse about it, but don’t panic. That will just keep you awake even longer.
Moon Face. The steroids I took through my treatment made my face look rounder. This condition is actually termed “Moon Face.” Just flaunt it proudly because you, my friend, are a cancer warrior! It does go away after treatment.
Mouth Sores. My mouth hurt the whole time. I had sores down my throat and cracks in the corners of my lips. My tongue was sensitive, and on some days it hurt to breathe. I was prescribed a liquid medicine to drink to soothe the sores down my throat. I kept the cracks on my lips lubricated and didn’t open my mouth wide, or they would bleed and hurt. Spicy and hot (temperature-wise) foods and drinks hurt my tongue. I tried to eat cooling foods like chilled watermelon, but I refused to give up my hot chai tea lattes, so I just struggled through drinking them. I ate oatmeal, pudding, and soft noodle dishes. Pizza crust and apples hurt too much. It was a lot of trial and error.
Pain/Neuropathy. I was on one drug that was a neurotoxin, which means it is toxic to nerves. Nerves are everywhere in the body, and when they are inflamed and angry, they let you know.
- Foot pain. My feet felt bruised and ultra-sensitive. I would stand on one foot at a time, raising the other to give it a break. Every step hurt me like I’d been beaten on the soles of my feet. Sometimes the thin bed sheet laying across my toes hurt too much. Since I couldn’t predict where my dog would leave her bone or my kids would leave a random Lego (one took me down for an hour), I bought a pair of slip-on clogs to wear in the house. I got a size larger than I usually wear so they wouldn’t squeeze my already sensitive feet.
- Tooth pain. The nerves in my teeth were angry, and some of my teeth became a bit loose. I tried to get a dental cleaning, but I started crying when they tried to clean my teeth with the spinning brush because of the pain. They stopped and kindly sent me home. I waited several months after I finished treatment to try again.
- All over pain. I had a constant ache from deep inside that radiated out. This prevented me from being able to sit or stand still. It was as if my body kept adjusting itself to find a comfortable position, but one didn’t exist. Over-the-counter painkillers did nothing to help this pain, and we had to resort to prescription painkillers so I could get some sleep. Other things that helped somewhat:
- Stretching slowly and doing some easy yoga poses every day.
- A blanket, heated in the dryer, wrapped around me like a cocoon.
- A loved one reminding me that this was temporary.
- Hot/warm showers.
- Watching a funny movie or show and laughing.
- Trying to focus on something else, like music or a puzzle.
Phantom Sensations. Because my nerves were temporarily injured by the chemo, they sent some wrong signals to my brain. I had a section on my right calf that would sometimes feel wet to me -- warm and wet. Once I thought I might have peed my pants, but it was just the phantom nerve sensation.
Sores That Won’t Heal. For those of you who have stuck with me through this list of horrible side effects, this one is definitely TMI. You’ve been warned.
Right before I started chemo, I got an anal fissure. Basically, a cut down there. It would not heal, so every time I had a bowel movement, the pain was unbearable, and it would bleed. This went on for the 5 months I was on heavy duty chemo, because it just wouldn’t heal, no matter how soft I got my poop. Sometimes the pain was so bad that I would lean against the wall and try not to pass out. I used a prescription numbing ointment, but it really didn’t help much. And I couldn’t stop pooping to give it time to heal, or I would get constipated, which would make it even worse. So, sores that don’t heal were my worst side effect as far as pain goes. Eventually it did heal, and I’m happy to report that the bathroom is once again a happy place.
Toenail Loss. Some of my toenails turned a dark color. Same with my fingernails, but the toenails seemed to be worse. They would also occasionally fall off. Manicures and pedicures should be avoided during treatment. On top risking infection, imagine the pedicurist’s surprise if your toenail fell completely off while they filed it! If my skin was sore or raw when a nail fell off, I’d apply some ointment and wrap it with a Band-Aid, keeping it clean until it grew back.
Weakness. Certain parts of my body felt weaker than others. I couldn’t lift my right arm over my head, which made showering and dressing a challenge. Sometimes I would trip because I didn’t lift my feet high enough while walking. Some weakness came from being in pain, but some of it probably came from a nerve injury. Either way, cut yourself some slack if lifting the milk is suddenly really hard. Your body is fighting a war.
Weepy. I cried. A lot. Especially at diagnosis. But then also as the chemo wore me down. The effects are cumulative, meaning that recovering from round six is harder than round one. Part of my weepiness came from the constant pain and part of it came from fear. Don’t watch dramas, sad movies, or the news. Watch cheerful things like silly rom coms. If possible, avoid toxic people. (I’m looking at you, Aunt Lucy.) Always carry tissues, and if the doc prescribes an antidepressant, take it.
Yuck Feeling. This is hard to explain until you’re wading through it. The Yuck was the overall bad feeling that would descend upon me 2 days after chemo. It usually lasted 3 days. Nothing at all looked good to eat. My usual tricks for feeling better didn’t work. I felt weepy and angry at the same time. I would wrap myself in my warm blanket, but then feel hot. I would cry in the shower, but the tapping of the water would annoy me. I would page through my cookbooks, but not even tapioca pudding (my favorite) looked good. The best I could do was watch funny shows and sleep. Three days later, things would be so much better.
Chemo is necessary to kill the cancer. It is not easy. These are the side effects that I remember from my ovarian cancer war, but there were probably others. Make sure to tell your nurse and doctor about any and all side effects that you experience, even if they are on my list. Do what you can to find comfort, and repeat after me: “This is temporary. I will feel good again. I am strong and kicking cancer’s butt.” Hugs to you!
Photo Credit: Michelle Thomas / EyeEm via Getty Images
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