Chemotherapy is the name given to a type of cancer treatment which kills cancer cells through the use of medication. There are lots of different chemotherapy drugs available, but the way they work is generally the same or similar. They prevent cancer cells from growing and spreading throughout the body by stopping them from reproducing.
Chemotherapy can cause side effects as the drugs can sometimes affect normal cells as well as cancer cells.
When Is Chemotherapy Used?
If cancer has spread or is at risk of spreading, chemotherapy may be used. This treatment has a number of uses:
- Curative chemotherapy – to try and cure the cancer completely.
- Adjuvant chemotherapy – to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery or radiotherapy.
- Palliative chemotherapy – to reduce symptoms if the condition can’t be cured.
- Chemoradiation – combined with radiotherapy to make it more effective.
- Neoadjuvant chemotherapy – used before surgery to make it more effective.
There can be big differences in the effectiveness of chemotherapy from case to case. Be sure to talk to your doctors if you want to know how helpful this treatment could be for you.
Once the testicle has been removed, if someone has teratoma and the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body, the condition can be treated with two short courses of BEP chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from coming back. This treatment is known as adjuvant chemotherapy.
However, two to four sessions of chemotherapy will be needed if the patient’s cancer has spread to elsewhere in the body. The patient will have to spend a few days in hospital at the start of each of these sessions, after which the chemotherapy drugs will be administered at weekly outpatient visits. A longer course of chemotherapy may be necessary if the cancer has spread to a number of other areas in the body.
Chemotherapy drugs are administered intravenously – that is, they’re injected into a vein.
What Are the Side Effects?
If the cancer has spread from the testicle to other parts of the body, chemotherapy will be given over a number of months to cure the cancer. However, if it is caught early and has not yet spread to other parts of the body, testicular cancer can be treated by receiving chemotherapy for only a short period. Many people with testicular cancer will be treated with chemotherapy, though the drugs can differ from case to case.
Everyone’s experience of chemotherapy will be a little different. Very few side effects will be experienced by those who have only needed a single dose of chemotherapy to prevent the spread of cancer. Nausea and changes in taste are common, and many people will feel a bit tired and have a low appetite for a couple of days.
Side effects tend to be more severe in cases where chemotherapy is given for longer periods of time. Though anti-sickness drugs are sometimes effective, many people will experience nausea and vomiting. Some patients also report an unpleasant metallic taste in their mouths, which some have linked with the use of cisplatin (one of the chemotherapy drugs).
Weight loss can be an issue for those who have received chemotherapy as a result of severe sickness and vomiting. That said, some patients have reported not feeling sick at all, and others have even found that their treatment increased their appetite.
Dealing with Side Effects
If you’re struggling with chemotherapy side effects, there are a few things you can try that can relieve the offending symptom.
Chemotherapy can result in low circulating haemoglobin. This can lead to anaemia and symptoms like shortness of breath and dizziness. A blood transfusion may be necessary if the anaemia is severe. You can find iron in leafy vegetables and some red meat, so eat plenty of these. However, your regular food should be giving you all the nutrients you need.
What to Avoid:
- Taking supplements without your doctor’s advice.
- Getting up too quickly (this can cause fainting).
Hair loss is a common issue that can occur around 2-3 weeks after receiving chemotherapy. Many people find this a very distressing experience, and choose to wear a hat or shave all of their hair off as soon as it starts to fall out.
What to Avoid:
Although they may be tempting, head cooling devices can actually reduce the blood supply to your head, making your chemotherapy less effective.
Peripheral Neuropathy (tingling in the hands and feet)
Chemotherapy can result in nerve damage, which you’ll feel as tingling in your hands and feet. Try to avoid extremes of temperature, keep your hands and feet warm and get plenty of gentle exercise. Be extra-careful when running hot water (test with your elbow first) in case you unknowingly burn yourself, and wear gloves when preparing food.
Regularly eating small meals throughout the day can be easier than sitting down to three big meals if your treatment is affecting your appetite. If nothing else works, fortified milkshakes and soups/drinks can be really helpful.
Ulcers and Other Mouth Sores
As well as helping get rid of any funny tastes in your mouth, fresh pineapple can help to heal and protect against mouth ulcers by making your mouth produce an extra layer of protective saliva. Bonjela and soothing baby toothpastes with aloe vera can also be helpful, especially if you use them alongside a soft-bristled toothbrush. If chewing becomes painful, you could try switching to a liquid or soft purée diet for a while.
If you can tolerate it, try rinsing your mouth out with salt water up to 4-5 times each day, and use vaseline to protect against dry lips. Some people find that sucking crushed ice during treatment makes a big difference. If dehydration is an issue, your doctor can prescribe artificial saliva.
Vomiting and Feeling Sick
It’s important to take your anti-sickness medications, which you should be given on a regular basis. For additional relief, it’s a good idea to eat dry biscuits throughout the day and sip plenty of tea. Drink slowly and take lots of sips rather than larger gulps. Many people find peppermint tea to be particularly helpful.
It’s a good idea to have a small meal a few hours before you receive chemotherapy, as you should never receive this treatment with an empty stomach.
What to Avoid:
- Curry, cajun cooking and other hot and spicy foods.
- Chips, burgers and other greasy fried foods.
- Drinking with meals, and eating or drinking too quickly.
- Coffee, energy drinks and other food and drink with high caffeine content.
- Baby food – this is designed for babies and has very little nutrition for adults!
- Large meals.
- Foods with high sugar content.
Metallic Taste in Mouth
Sharp-tasting fruits like fresh pineapple can be great if chemotherapy is leaving a metallic taste in your mouth. Some patients find it helpful to suck boiled sweets while receiving chemotherapy. You can add flavour to your meals by using seasoned or marinated meats, or adding extra herbs and spices while cooking.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a small nap now and then if you’re feeling tired. If insomnia becomes a problem your doctor may prescribe you sleeping tablets, though some people find meditation equally helpful.
Diarrhoea is a big issue as it can easily lead to more severe issues if left untreated. Try eating lots of things like rice and pasta, dry biscuits and crackers and white bread to slow down your bowel movements. Diarrhoea can deplete your body’s potassium levels, so be sure to eat plenty of bananas to bring that level back up.
Reduced Immunity to Illnesses
Chemotherapy can have a big impact on your immune system, so it’s vital that you pay meticulous attention to your hygiene at this time. Make sure you wash your hands plenty, especially after using the bathroom.
What to Avoid:
Your risk of picking up illnesses will be higher in certain countries, so it’s important you do your research before travelling anywhere. Avoid live vaccines. After your treatment, ask your oncologist when it’s safe to travel and receive vaccinations again.
Shortness of Breath
Chemotherapy can result in inflammation in the lungs, resulting in low levels of oxygen in the blood. You should report any breathing difficulties to your doctor – in some cases, you’ll just need a bit of rest, but in others a blood transfusion may be necessary.
What to Avoid:
- Strenuous, high-energy tasks.
- Do not smoke.
Ringing in the Ears
Chemotherapy can result in tinnitus. Try asking the people around you to speak clearly and slowly. Some patients find it helpful to listen to gentle background music.
Chemotherapy can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so check with your oncologist to find out how much sunlight you should be getting. If you have to go outside, always use factor 15 suncream. It may be best to keep your treated area covered for a year, but at the very least allow 6 weeks to pass after radiotherapy before exposing your skin to the sun.
In the summer, make sure you wear a cap to prevent your scalp from getting sunburned. When shaving, it’s a good idea to use an electric razor as these are less prone to cutting the skin. Afterwards, apply a good-quality, unperfumed moisturiser.
What to Avoid:
- Rubbing the skin around the treated area.
- Sunbathing in direct sunlight, as you may be at risk of severe sunburn which can leave scarring for life.
For more information about testicular cancer cancer, check out Need2Know’s Essential Guide to Testicular Cancer which walks the reader through each step, starting from the self-examination all the way through to diagnosis, treatment, recovery and returning back to normal after the fight. Need2Know also have some great books about prostate cancer, breast cancer and skin cancer. Whether you’re newly diagnosed, caring for a friend or just curious, we have all the information you need!