Help for Lesser-Known Side Effects of Chemo

By Lori Murray

If you're about to undergo chemo, you may be prepared for nausea and hair loss, but are you ready for side effects like constipation, dry skin or tingling hands and feet? These fairly common issues don't get much press, so you may not realize these symptoms are connected to your chemo treatment. While some side effects go away shortly after therapy is finished, others may take several months or longer to disappear completely. Here's a rundown of the less-talked-about side effects and what you can do for them.

Chemo can cause white blood cells to plummet to abnormally low levels, a condition called neutropenia. Since white blood cells fight off infections, it’s vital that they remain in the normal range so you can stay on your chemo schedule. Report any signs of infection, including fever, chills and aches.
What you can do: Wash your hands often, stay away from sick people and avoid procedures, dental work or vaccinations, all of which can increase your infection risk.

Some chemo drugs can lower your red blood cell count, causing anemia. Report fatigue, weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath.
What you can do: Rest when you need to, eat well and exercise when you feel up to it.

Weight gain
Even though certain side effects like nausea can make food unappealing, some people actually end up gaining a few pounds. The culprit? Reduced physical activity due to fatigue, combined with indulging in tummy-settling comfort foods like bread or pasta.
What you can do: Share tips with friends or relatives who want to bring you food. Suggest that they make high-protein dishes like fish, chicken or turkey. Also, ask them to break up dishes into smaller, individual portions so you won't be as tempted to overeat. But whatever you do, don't beat yourself up over a few extra pounds. Concentrate instead on healing and feeling better; you can start a new diet after your chemo is over.

Chemo can slow down intestinal activity, as can other meds you may be taking, such as those used to relieve pain or nausea.
What you can do: Ask your doctor or oncology nurse to recommend a laxative, bowel stimulant or stool softener. And if the usual self-help tips (such as exercising, eating high-fiber foods and drinking lots of water) don't work, examine your daily routine. Any change—like getting up earlier for appointments or skipping meals—can throw off your normal bathroom patterns. If your schedule is off, plan a morning bathroom break to get your body back on track. Eat something when you wake up, then give yourself about 30 minutes for your bowels to start moving. Doing so daily can retrain your body.

Dry skin
Some types of chemo can cause dry, itchy skin. Extreme weather conditions—like strong wind, heat or cold—can make your skin feel even worse.
What you can do: Give your skin extra TLC by gently patting dry—instead of rubbing—after bathing. Then immediately apply a thick hydrating lotion or emollient to seal in moisture. Also, try switching to a mild soap and laundry detergent.

Tingling hands and feet
Sometimes chemo drugs can cause numbness and tingling in your hands and feet, a condition called peripheral neuropathy.
What you can do: While this tingling isn't dangerous, it can impact your quality of life. To address it, your doctor may delay or reduce the dosage of your particular chemotherapy drug, or switch to another drug.

Fuzzy thinking
Chemo brain is a vague term that refers to a temporary but all-too-real condition that affects memory, concentration and the ability to think clearly. People often describe it as a mental fog or cloudiness.
What you can do: In the morning, do a "brain check" by testing yourself with dates and numbers (say, your Social Security number or family birthdays). If you're having trouble remembering, try these tips:

  • Write down important tasks you need to do that day and review the list—or even rewrite it—again as you check off the tasks.
  • Leave messages for yourself—like appointment reminders—on your voicemail.
  • Get outside! According to a study in Cancer Nursing, spending time immersed in nature improved the ability to focus and direct attention in women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. The researchers "prescribed" a weekly dose of 120 minutes, so write yourself a Rx: For 15-20 minutes a day, take a nature walk. Can't get outside? Even just sitting by a window with a view of a natural setting worked for study participants.
Published December 2011

  Side Effects

Common Chemo Side Effects
Handling Chemotherapy Side Effects
Help for Lesser-Known Side Effects of Chemo
10 Easy Ways to Stay Well During Chemo
15 Ways to Protect Against Infection
Prevent Chemo-Related Infections at Home
Do's and Don'ts to Avoid Infection
Fight Back Against Weakened Immunity
What Is Neutropenia?
The Serious Side of Chemotherapy

Tips for Handling Chemo Side Effects
Reduce Side Effects Naturally—Here's How!
New Ways to Beat Back Nausea
Caring for Your Mouth During Chemo
How to Get a Good Night's Sleep
8 Ways to Cope With Chemo
11 Ways to Curb Chemo Fatigue
8 Ways to Cope When Chemo Causes Hot Flashes
On Chemo? Fend off Nausea
Infection Alert!