Cancer treatments have come so far over the last 70 years. They have brought us new treatments such as CAR T-cell therapy, and improved others. Many are now less invasive than ever, but the side-effects are still far-reaching. It’s important to know about the possible impacts, so that you can take care of yourself or a loved one when they are experiencing side effects of cancer treatments, which can include1:
  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Weakened Immune System
  • Hair Loss


Aches and pains

Cancer can cause pain before, during and after treatment, but not everyone experiences this. Only around half of those who go for cancer treatment encounter pain. 

Your cancer may cause pain by pressing on the tissue around it or by stopping certain parts of the body from working normally. However, treatment can also cause pain. For example surgery will cause pain as the tissues are damaged first in order to remove the tumor, whilst radiotherapy can cause the skin to feel like it’s experienced severe sunburn.

What types of pain can be caused?
Cancer's pain is different for everybody, sometimes it can be an acute pain (sudden sharp pains) or a chronic pain (long term pains). Often, the pain is described using body parts, such as bone, soft tissue and nerve pains. These usually describe the parts of the body the cancer is affecting most.

Can I manage my pain?
Most of the pains you experience can be managed or treated. We would suggest first speaking to your GP over the phone or in person about any pains you may be experiencing. Other professionals can help with these pains, such as physiotherapists, psychologists etc. You may be treated with painkillers or even have treatments such as surgery to help - don’t worry, this is completely normal. 


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MedicAlert can help ease the experience of talking to professionals about your pains. Your wallet cards or printed full record can be taken to your appointments to help you remember all your conditions, medications and history. After all, the pains may not all be related to your cancer and may be related to other conditions you may have. Equally, it is important that your consultant knows of other medications you are taking to ensure they only prescribe you with new drugs that will not pose a risk. 


Tiredness

Fatigue is a feeling of tiredness or exhaustion. Tiredness can be caused by treatments or the cancer itself. It can affect the simple things in everyday life, but with the help of professionals it can be managed and reduced.

Cancer treatments often cause fatigue in the body, however we do not yet know exactly why this is - it may be that after treatment your body is using more energy to heal. Cancer itself can cause the body to swell in certain areas, which can cause difficulty moving. Fatigue can affect simple tasks such as getting dressed, making you feel lightheaded or breathless, but there are a few things that can help to minimize this.

How can I stop myself feeling tired? 
One of the best ways to manage fatigue is to keep active. This can give you more energy as it boosts your appetite and also improves your sleep. It is best to start slowly rather than going for a marathon straight away! Try walking first then building up to other activities and make sure to balance your exercise well with rest.

Eating healthily can help you to regain or keep your strength. Make sure that you drink plenty of water and, if you have taste changes, try different foods. 


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Wearing your MedicAlert bracelet can help give you the peace of mind to be able to be active, indoors and outdoors, knowing that we are there to speak for you if you need us.  


Nausea

Some cancers and treatments can cause nausea and vomiting, but what triggers this? It can be caused by the inner ear, taste, smell and touch senses, nerves in the gut and more. 

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting. It’s important to let the doctor or nurse know if you begin to feel nauseous or if it becomes worse than it already is. 

Some cancers can also cause your body to have a high calcium level, which can in turn lead to nausea. If the cancer cells are putting pressure on your brain, then this can affect the ‘vomiting centre’ and cause you to be sick. 

How can you reduce your sickness?
Luckily, there are many types of anti-sickness drugs that can be used to help with nausea. We suggest talking to your GP about the precise sickening effects you are having as they will be able to prescribe the best medication to help you with your exact symptoms.


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You can also try to manage your sickness yourself. You can use relaxation techniques to help2. Some people find listening to music helps calm or distract them. Guided imagery can also help, which involves using your imagination to picture yourself in a calming scene. You can combine these techniques with one another for maximum impact and benefits. 


Your immune system

What is the immune system and how does it work? Your immune system is the body’s defence against any attacks, i.e. bacteria, viruses or any other unknown organisms. It works in three ways. 

The skin and mucous are the first layer of defense. The skin protects us like a wall would its inhabitants whilst the mucous acts as barriers at entrances to this wall, such are nose and mouth. The second line of defence are the proteins; these are your body's soldiers that will attack organisms that manage to get into your body. 

The third line of defence are the blood and lymph cells3. These are usually referred to as the Lymphatic System. This is a network of tissues and organs designed to transport lymph (a colourless fluid) around the body, to help rid the body of toxins and other unwanted materials.


Prestige Leather medical ID bracelet resting on a table


How does cancer affect our immune system?
Chemotherapy reduces the number of white blood cells in the body. This can have a large effect on the immune system as white blood cells are part of the body’s defence against infections.The number of white blood cells will increase steadily after chemotherapy and will usually return to normal before the next cycle of chemo. 

Surgery can also increase the risk of infection as the break in skin is, in effect, a break in your wall of defence. This will of course lessen over time as the body heals the break in its defence. 


Hair Loss

Hair loss is one of the side effects caused by the many forms of cancer treatment, the most common being chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It can range from a small area of hair or complete loss of hair.

How do we prepare for this?
Preparing for hair loss can be difficult, but trying to be mentally ready does help to make it easier. You may want to consider removing all your hair if it starts to fall out or thin dramatically, as then the transition is under your control, however this step isn’t for everyone. 


4 old friends sitting on a seaside bench, chatting together


Other people's reactions to your hair loss can be difficult, which is why it's so important to talk to friends and family beforehand to prepare them and yourself. Talking to them during and after can also be helpful, as they can then understand what you are going through and offer you support.

Your scalp will be much more sensitive to different weather conditions due to the fact that it is not used to being exposed. We would suggest making sure that you have an ample supply of hats for both cold and warm weather to make sure you are prepared!

What MedicAlert can do to help?

MedicAlert may not be able to help you directly deal with the physical issues caused by cancer and its treatment, but we can help ease the experience and reduce your stress throughout. 

MedicAlerts online record is a secure way of keeping all your details in one place for doctors and paramedics to access when they need to. You can use the wallet card or a copy of your online record at  appointments, to show consultants all your medical information easily. 

In emergency situations, some symptoms of cancer can often be confused with other conditions, so it is important that your MedicAlert alerts paramedics to the fact that you have cancer so you receive the appropriate treatment for your needs.

Just as crucially, if you have had cancer in the past, make sure this is detailed on your MedicAlert record so that paramedics are aware of your medical history. In emergencies where you need a blood transfusion, this will ensure you receive irradiated blood products and are not at risk! 

MedicAlert is a community of members, all of whom live with a wide range of health-related conditions ranging from heart conditions and epilepsy to rare conditions such as Diamond Blackfan Anaemia. We support all of our members, no matter what, through providing 24/7 emergency access to their medical records in emergencies, ensuring the most efficient, reliable and accessible route for medical professionals in times of need.


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References

  1. https://www.macmillan.org.uk/cancer-information-and-support/treatment/physical-impacts-of-cancer-and-treatment
  2. https://www.webmd.com/cancer/qa/what-are-some-relaxation-techniques-to-help-with-nausea-and-vomiting-from-chemotherapy
  3. https://www.livescience.com/26983-lymphatic-system.html

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