Potential Side Effects During Cancer Treatments


A cancer diagnosis is often distressing, usually due to the unknown; therefore, information is power. Learning about the side effects of cancer treatments, such as radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, and pain medications, can help ease the fear associated with a cancer diagnosis. Although cancer treatment options, such as radiation and chemotherapy, reduce or eliminate cancer cells, they also kill healthy cells, which creates unwanted side effects. Surgery to remove cancerous tumors requires a recuperation period, and pain medications to help with cancer pain can also cause unwanted side effects.

Radiation side effects

During radiation therapy, fatigue and skin changes (e.g., redness and burning sensations) are common. Other side effects that occur during or shortly after radiation therapy are highly dependent on the area of the body being treated. These side effects may include, but are not limited to, hair loss in the area being treated, low blood counts, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and mouth sores.

Chemotherapy side effects

When chemotherapy effectively begins to reduce cancer cells during treatment, some cancer-originated symptoms may improve; however, side effects from chemotherapy treatment may develop. Common side effects of chemotherapy include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fevers
  • Bruising or bleeding
  • Mouth sores

Surgery side effects

Surgery performed to remove or reduce the size and spread of cancerous tumors can cause pain at the incision site. It also typically involves a lengthy recovery period.

Pain medication side effects

All medications pose a risk of side effects. Before taking any prescribed medication, possible adverse reactions and side effects should be reviewed with a health care provider. The proper dosage of pain medication to resolve cancer-related pain should be discussed between the individual and the prescribing physician. Once the body determines the dosage needed for adequate pain relief, side effects, such as confusion, sleepiness and lethargy diminish over time.

Individuals taking strong pain medications, such as opioids, to manage cancer pain may also experience constipation. Health care providers often recommend taking stool softeners or laxatives to ease opioid-related constipation. Preventing constipation with stool softeners is easier than treating it with laxatives.

Even over-the-counter pain medications can have serious side effects if the recommended dose is exceeded or if they are used for an extended period. For example, aspirin and ibuprofen can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, and acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

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