Chemotherapy can really take its toll — both physically and mentally. So, to help, we’ve listed some useful advice on how to deal with the side effects of chemo, and how to keep your body, mind, and your immune system fighting fit all through your treatment.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is one of the most common forms of cancer treatments, namely because it uses powerful anti-cancer drugs to kill off cancer cells.
Whilst these potent drugs are extremely effective when it comes to killing off dangerous, cancerous cells, because chemotherapy is administered into the bloodstream, it travels throughout the entire body, so these drugs can start to attack healthy cells along with cancerous ones, too.
All cells within the body grow by splitting or dividing into two cells. Chemotherapy works by targeting the cells that are dividing at a much faster rate — cancer cells usually grow and divide much quicker than normal cells. Chemotherapy treatment stops these fast-growing cells from making more cells, which ultimately stops the cancerous cells from spreading to further areas in the body.
How does chemo affect the immune system?
Because the chemotherapy drugs are extremely potent, they sometimes attack healthy white blood cells by mistake. Cancer cells are generally cells that divide rapidly, but some healthy cells also divide and grow easily, — these include cells in your blood, bone marrow, mouth, bowel, nose, nails, vagina, and hair follicles — so chemotherapy can mistakenly damage these cells too.
Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells because, unlike healthy cells, they can’t repair themselves very well. Healthy cells typically repair from damage once the treatment ends, so the good news is the damage to healthy cells is only temporary.
You may, however, experience a number of unpleasant side effects as a result, including lowered immunity, hair loss, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, bowel irritation, anaemia, diarrhoea, constipation, changes in taste or smell, heartburn, muscle weakness, or problems with chewing or swallowing.
Most of these side effects are only temporary during treatment, and disappear once your treatment is over.
Typically, the most damage people experience during chemo is on the bone marrow — the spongy, fast-growing tissue that’s found in your bones that makes both red and white blood cells. The cells in the bone marrow continuously divide and grow, giving rise to new generations of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
Chemotherapy, however, damages and kills off many of the cells within the bone marrow. With less bone marrow, your body is unable to produce as many white blood cells — your white blood cells are the backbone of your immune system — which means your body is more prone to infection. If your white blood cell count is too low, (which often happens during chemotherapy) it means you’re more susceptible to illness, including infections caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi.
In short, your immune system doesn’t have the stockpile it needs (or that is usually has) to fight off infection and illness naturally. This is why many people receiving chemotherapy have a weekend immune system, and they often get very sick from even minor infections, like a cold or stomach upset.
So, for anyone receiving chemotherapy it’s extremely important to take care of your body and your immune system, to ensure it’s strong enough to deal with any of the side effects caused by the treatment.
So, to help you and your immune system stay at the top of your game, here are 8 ways to keep your body healthy during chemo, and to hep keep any nasty illness at bay.
1. Avoid germs
During chemo your immune system has to work on overtime to fight off those damaging cancer cells, so you don’t want it distracted with a niggling cold or stomach bug. Some bacteria and viruses are hard to avoid, so during treatment it’s best to avoid any crowded places that could be teeming with unfriendly germs, and avoid anyone else who is sick.
But even your kitchen can tip a weak immune system off balance. Bacteria can spread like a breeding ground when there’s food around, so it’s important to take care when you’re prepping ingredients (particularly raw meats), as lowered immunity can make you more prone to food borne illness. Here are some simple hygiene habits to stop germs from spreading:
- Avoid bacteria by washing your hands thoroughly before and after prepping any food, and make sure you keep your hands away from your face.
- Only consume well-washed fresh foods and fully cooked meats — avoid pre-packaged foods, raw seafood and ready-to-eat cold meats from the deli counter.
- Sanitise your kitchen and any surfaces with anti-bacterial cleaning products.
- Clean your teeth several times.
- Protect yourself from injuries or cuts (wear gloves when gardening or cleaning) — if you do experience an injury, clean the wound with an anti-bacterial cream.
- Avoid hot and spicy foods — chemo can cause mouth sores, and these foods will make it much more painful.
- After eating, rinse your mouth with salt water.
- Have regular baths or showers.
- Limit contact with people who are sick — avoid large crowds and anyone you know who has either a fever, the flu, or other infections.
- Avoid touching animal waste — if you do, wear protective gloves and wash your hand throughly afterwards.
2. Eat right
A well-balanced, nutritious diet filled with fruits, vegetables and protein will help your body deal with any nasty side effects of the chemo, as well as helping to boost your immune system and fight off infections.
You might experience a lack of appetite or nausea during your treatment, but it’s important to consume the right nutrients to support your immune system and your body’s other systems. This can help to speed up your recovery and keep up your strength and energy. During treatment, try to avoid processed food, sugary drinks, and alcohol as these can exacerbate your symptoms.
If you do find that you have trouble eating enough or eating certain foods, you may need to chat to you doctor to find ways to manage this.
Your diet may also change depending on your personal circumstances, and how you react to your treatment. For example, you might need high-fat, high-calorie foods to regain your weight, or you might need more low-calorie, low-fat foods to maintain your weight.
Your doctor can help you devise the right diet plan so that you can reach your individual nutrition goals. Here are some general tips on healthy eating to get you started.
3. Drink plenty of water
Keeping yourself thoroughly hydrated is an important part of any healthy diet — your body, and all its organs, cells and tissues rely on fluids to keep it working properly. But it’s particularly important during chemo, as the treatment can make you extremely hydrated. Drinking plenty of water before and after treatment will help your body process the chemotherapy drugs, and flush the excess out of your system.
You should typically drink least 8-10 glasses of fluids per day. This should be mainly water, but you can also drink smoothies, milk and fruit juices, as well as soup and fruits.
Most people feel extreme exhaustion and fatigue as a result of the chemo, so it’s unlikely you’ll have the energy for any marathon training during your treatment! Having said that, regular exercise can — even as little as three 10-minute walks a day— improve your appetite, digestion, immune system and emotional state. Aim for light exercise for around 20-30 minutes a day. You can chat to your doctor about what exercise routine is right for you.
5. Look after your mental health
Dealing with cancer can be extremely emotional. Feelings of depression, fear and anxiety are all very normal and common responses. In fact, 40% of cancer patients experience clinically significant mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
But you don’t have to deal with the stress of your illness and your ongoing treatment alone. Reach out to a friend or family member to talk about how you’re feeling. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone close to you, there are lots of support groups and online resources.
Take a look at our list of mental health resources, or you can call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20 who will be able to help.
You can also schedule an appointment with your doctor who will be able to refer you for counselling sessions and/or suggest some complementary therapies to help you manage your stress and anxiety. Here are 10 easy mindfulness exercises that can help you de-stress.
6. Prepare for side effects
Chemo can bring a number of unpleasant side effects for some patients, so it’s a good idea to note down any symptoms you experience, and how long they last, following your treatments. You can then share this with your GP or specialist, who will be able to advise a number of medicines and/or strategies to help ease off any side effects that you may experience.
They may also suggest complementary therapies to help with any side effects and to improve your overall health and wellbeing.
7. Get advice before taking supplements
It’s often advised to avoid certain supplements — including vitamins, minerals and other herbal supplements — during chemotherapy, as they can interfere with the treatment drugs. Talk to your doctor who will be able to advise which supplements you should avoid.
It’s also worth noting that you should avoid drinking green tea during chemo, as the antioxidants can interfere with the effectiveness of the treatment.
8. Don’t forget to rest
Going through chemo is exhausting — both physically and mentally — so give your body time to relax and unwind. Particularly on days following your treatment.
Indulge in restful, relaxing activities that you love, whether that’s a Netflix sofa session, a relaxing bath, reading a book, your favourite takeaway, or even a soothing massage. Your body deserves all the TLC it can get, so treat it to something uplifting and restorative that will lift your spirits and help you relax.
Try to get at least eight hours’ sleep per night to ensure you feel well rested each day, too.
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