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The Side Effects Of Chemo

It occurred to me that while I briefly went over the side effects I’d be experiencing when I first started chemo, I never really went in depth with what it feels like. So today I thought I’d list out all the fun things that come with chemo to create a better understanding of it. Keep in mind, this is just for my Hodgkin’s ABVD treatments. Some people experience additional side effects or don’t get any of the ones I’m listing at all. Concentration of dose, length of treatment, and of course individual reaction to the drugs all play large factors in it too!

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1. Nausea. I have actually not experienced a lot of nausea thanks to my team of anti-nausea meds on the side – zofran, decadron, and maxeran. If anything, I sometimes feel like I do after a long road trip. A little gross and weak, but nothing like the bad hangover I expected it to be. The room never spins, I don’t fall into walls, and I don’t get beer goggles that make me hit on unattractive men.

2. Breaking down of the stomach lining. As you know, chemotherapy kills fast growing cells. That includes the cancerous cells and the healthy cells. The lining of our stomachs is made up of fast growing cells. This is actually what causes the nausea, but I find I get different side effects from this. Sometimes stomach pains when I eat certain foods, eat too quickly, or go too long without eating at all. The worst is when I get a burning sensation from my tummy to my throat. I don’t know what this is, but it’s the only time I ever feel like I’m going to throw up.

3. Hair loss. Okay, so everyone knows chemo kills the hair on a person’s head because it’s made up of fast growing cells as well. That hair is usually first to go, but what a lot of people don’t realize (or I didn’t anyway) is that chemo can kill the hair all over the body. From the forearms to down under. Losing the hair on my head sucks, not needing to shave or wax is at least slight bonus.

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4. Mouth sores. The lining of your mouth is made up of fast growing cells too! I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had any mouth sores yet. But I do get extra pain from all four of my wisdom teeth growing in. They’re growing in normally, thank goodness, but I’m not allowed to go to a dentist on chemo. Cuts in the mouth don’t close up as quickly as other places, and being in the mouth makes them much more susceptible to getting infected.

5. Cold sores. I haven’t gotten these yet either, and let’s hope I don’t get them at all! I think the weakened immune system has something to do with an increase of cold sores with chemo patients. Speaking of which…

6. Fever/Neutropenia - I’ve talked about my weakened immune system a lot. It’s different with every chemo regimen, but mine in particular zaps my white blood cells, which are essential for fighting off sickness. My immune system is consistently around 1/10th of a normal person’s. Because of this I have to take my temperature every day. If it goes up to 101F, I have to go to the hospital as it could be a sign of infection. Simple illnesses can blow up into very big ones on chemo because my body does not have the resources to keep it under control. I actually have a piece of paper that will let me jump the line in the emergency room and get admitted right away. This is currently my worst fear as I absolutely do not want to be an inpatient again – especially in an isolation room.

7. Numbness – I don’t get this a whole lot, but sometimes my fingers and toes will get a little numb or tingly. I’ve heard of this being really bad with other patients though.

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8. Fatigue – This has been one of the worst side effects for me, and many other people. The kind of fatigue you get on chemo is nowhere near the kind of fatigue you would get in every day life. It’s not like I feel tired and it will go away with a nap or a good night’s sleep. It the kind of fatigue that can be completely debilitating. Often times I will lay completely still and feel like I don’t even have the energy to move an arm. Instead of being hit by a mack truck, I feel like it has run back and forth over my eyelids. Doing something like bringing the laundry to the basement is enough to tire me out for the following hour. It’s intense!

9. Diarrhea/Constipation – I debated mentioning this because it’s TMI. I don’t want to read about poop on other blogs, let alone write about it on my own blog. But it’s kind of a big deal to those who suffer from it. I usually only experience the latter, and let me tell you, it SUCKS. Big time. I never gave much thought to those who complained of constipation before, but it is really no way to live. I have to take laxatives every day, and eating veggies and exercise helps too.

10. Chemo fog – In other words, I’m losing my mind. For years, people thought chemo fog was a result of the stress of chemo. But newer research is showing that it’s a very real thing. In fact, my ABVD drugs can actually sneak up through the vessels that protect my brain from the rest of my body. It’s made me forgetful, I can’t remember where I put things, my appointments, what I did yesterday, or think of words mid-sentence. I have a hard time reading and retaining information. Lord knows how many e-mails I’ve forgotten to respond to. Basically, my Nana is smarter than me now.

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11. Food restrictions – I finally met with the oncology nutritionist and learned a little more about what I should and shouldn’t be eating! Surprisingly, nothing with a strong concentration of anti-oxidants or it could mess with what the chemo is doing to my red blood cells. That includes no green tea! Because of my low immune system, I can’t eat foods that may contain bacteria. So certain fruits and veggies are iffy, or need to be washed really well. No sushi or shellfish, sliced meats, etc. Nothing too crunchy that could cut my mouth, and nothing citrus-y because it makes my mouth hurt. I also have to double my calcium and take in extra protein to protect my bones and muscles from the chemicals in the chemo.

12. Dry skin – This hasn’t been *too* bad for me yet, but I do find my skin has become a lot more sensitive on the chemo. I’ve been getting skin reactions to things I never did before and breaking out into a rash after touching something is quite common for me now.

13. Burn easily – On that note, chemo makes your skin more sensitive to the sun too. I never got any burns this summer despite spending a fair bit of time out in the sun, but I also slathered on the sunscreen religiously.

14. Weight gain - Before starting chemo, I was scared I’d turn into this rail thin sickly person because that’s what I associated chemo with. Truth is, because of the anti-nausea meds these days, most people keep their appetites while getting treatment. Pair that with a decrease in activity and a slew of steroids that retain fluids, and you get weight gain. Fabulous.

15. Bone pain – This is not a side effect caused by the chemo, but rather a side effect of a drug used to treat the side effect of low white blood cells. Gotta love how that works. The additional drugs I’m taking on top of the chemo have side effects too, but I’m including this one because it’s by far one of the worst. Because neupogen stimulates cell grown within my bones, it causes a pain deep inside my skeleton. Mostly my pelvis, spine, thighs, and shoulders. Some days it’s quite manageable, other days it leaves me in bed writhing in pain and resorting to pain killers. To me, there’s few kinds of pain worse than that which happens in your bones.

And with that, I am off to bed! I am feeling particularly sucky after chemo #6 yesterday. After looking at this list, it’s no surprise why!

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