Cancer Mythconception: Side effects dissipate when treatment is over – part 1
Some cancer patients experience fatigue, taste changes even once cancer free
It’s your last radiation treatment and before you walk out of the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion, you ring the bell in the lobby that symbolizes you’re done with treatment. It’s a wonderful moment in your cancer journey.
Unfortunately, your journey may not be over, even though your treatment is complete. And for many patients this comes as a surprise.
“They are like, ‘Yay, I’m done with treatment,’ especially when they ring that bell and it’s symbolic,” says Beverly Weaver, RN, St. Joseph’s/Candler nurse navigator. “It’s surprising for a lot of people that even though they are finished with their treatment, there’s still so much going on that they have to deal with.”
Each cancer case is individualized, so it’s important to understand not everyone will experience the same outcomes following treatment. However, there are some common issues some cancer patients may go through even after treatment is complete and they are cancer free.
Fatigue is a common side effect during treatment for many cancer patients. However, some are surprised that they still feel tired weeks, months or even longer after their treatment is over.
That’s normal, Weaver says.
“It’s OK to be tired. You’ve earned your fatigue,” she says. “We’ll work with you to feel better.”
Weaver says just the stress of a cancer diagnosis is exhausting. Followed by possible surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can make anyone feel tired and that fatigue can linger.
Radiation doesn’t immediately stop working so patients who need that treatment may experience fatigue after treatment is complete, Weaver says. Chemotherapy patients may continue to experience tiredness because chemo often leaves patients nauseous and unable to eat, which in turn causes fatigue.
Many breast cancer survivors, for example, are prescribed an oral medication to reduce the risk of recurrence. This medication often mimics menopausal symptoms which result in insomnia, only making the fatigue worse, Weaver adds.
“Over time, it gets better. We encourage patients to participate in any kind of physical activity, as much as they can do to make them feel better,” Weaver says. “We understand it’s hard to ask someone to exercise when they just told you they have fatigue, but the more you can do, the better you will feel.”
Weaver recommends taking a class, such as the cancer transitions class offered at the LCRP, or joining the LIVESTRONG Program at the YMCA. The LCRP also offers a free yoga class for cancer patients and survivors, taught every Monday by a cancer survivor and certified yoga instructor. Learn more here.
If a class or gym isn’t your scene, try little things at home such as using cans of foods as weights if you don’t have small weights or walking to the mail box instead of asking someone else to do it.
Loss of appetite, changes in taste
Both radiation therapy and chemotherapy may affect how much and what you eat. There are many chemotherapy drugs that cause loss of appetite and nausea. There are medications to try to combat nausea but they aren’t 100 percent effective for everyone, Weaver says.
Radiation also can cause loss of appetite, especially for patients who had cancer in the head or neck. They may experience difficulty swallowing, even after treatment is complete which often leads to not wanting to eat at all.
Some people may experience taste changes, which many find surprising, Weaver says. These changes may last up to six months after completion of treatment, but some are permanent. A person who once liked spicy food may find he can no longer tolerate it. Others may be able to eat spicy foods but can’t stand the taste of strawberries any longer.
One piece of advice Weaver offers to patients is to avoid their favorite foods during and for a time period after treatment.
“You would think your first inclination if you don’t have an appetite is you’d at least eat your favorite food,” Weaver says. “But, what if it’s your favorite and you get turned off by eating that food? How many times have we gotten sick off a certain food and never want it again?”
Weaver recommends eating foods that are easy on the stomach or at least drinking a nutritional shake if you don’t feel hungry at all.
All this is normal
Weaver likes to stress that these instances and side effects are normal and that things will get better. She also encourages patients to always be honest with their physicians and ask any questions they have.
“There’s nothing wrong with the treatment you had and nothing wrong with you. It’s completely normal to feel this way,” Weaver says. “The appetite and the fatigue, those things will get better over time and there are things we can do to make it get better quicker.”
Coming Thursday: Part 2 of Cancer Mythconception covers some longer term side effects some cancer patients may experience