Side effects from cancer and cancer treatments can include:
Diarrhea is frequent, loose or watery bowel movements. It is a common side effect of certain chemotherapy or of radiation therapy.
Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia)
Dysphagia occurs when a patient has trouble getting food or liquid to pass down the throat. Some patients may gag, cough or choke when trying to swallow, while others experience pain or feel like food is stuck in the throat. Difficulty swallowing is a relatively common side effect of some cancer treatments. Potential side effects of cancer treatment that can cause swallowing difficulties include soreness, pain or inflammation in the throat, esophagus or mouth (mucositis); dry mouth from radiation treatment or chemotherapy; infections of the mouth or esophagus from radiation treatment or chemotherapy; swelling or constriction of the throat or esophagus from radiation treatment or surgery; and physical changes to the mouth, jaw, throat or esophagus as a result of surgery.
Hair Loss (Alopecia)
A potential side effect of chemotherapy is hair loss. Chemotherapy causes hair loss by damaging the hair follicles responsible for hair growth. Hair loss may occur throughout the body, including the head, face, arms, legs, underarms and pubic area. The hair may fall out entirely, gradually or in sections. In some cases, the hair will simply thin – sometimes unnoticeably – and may become duller and dryer. Losing one’s hair can be a psychologically and emotionally challenging experience and can affect a patient’s self-image and quality of life. However, the hair loss is usually temporary, and the hair often grows back.
Hypercalcemia: Hypercalcemia is an unusually high level of calcium in the blood. Hypercalcemia can be life threatening and is the most common metabolic disorder associated with cancer, occurring in 10% to 20% of patients with cancer. While most of the calcium in the body is stored in the bones, about 1% of the body’s calcium circulates in the bloodstream. Calcium is important for many bodily functions, including bone formation, muscle contractions and nerve and brain function. Patients with hypercalcemia may experience loss of appetite, nausea and/or vomiting; constipation and abdominal pain; increased thirst and frequent urination; fatigue, weakness and muscle pain; changes in mental status, including confusion, disorientation and difficulty thinking; and headaches. Severe hypercalcemia can be associated with kidney stones, irregular heartbeat or heart attack and eventually loss of consciousness and coma.
An infection occurs when harmful bacteria, viruses or fungi such as yeast invade the body and the immune system is not able to destroy them quickly enough. Patients with cancer are more likely to develop infections because both cancer and cancer treatments (mostly chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the bones or extensive areas of the body) can weaken the immune system. Symptoms of infection include fever (temperature of 100.5°F or higher); chills or sweating; sore throat or sores in the mouth; abdominal pain; pain or burning when urinating or frequent urination; diarrhea or sores around the anus; cough or breathlessness; redness, swelling or pain, particularly around a cut or wound; and unusual vaginal discharge or itching.
Mouth Sores (Mucositis)
Mucositis is an inflammation of the inside of the mouth and throat, leading to painful ulcers and mouth sores. Mucositis can be caused by chemotherapy directly, the reduced immunity brought on by chemotherapy, or radiation treatment to the head and neck area.
Nausea and Vomiting
Vomiting, also called emesis or throwing up, is the act of expelling of the contents of the stomach through the mouth. It is a natural way for the body to rid itself of harmful substances. Nausea is the urge to vomit. Nausea and vomiting are common in patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer and in some patients receiving radiation therapy. Many patients with cancer say they fear nausea and vomiting more than any other side effects of treatment. When it is minor and treated quickly, nausea and vomiting can be quite uncomfortable, but cause no serious problems. Persistent vomiting can cause dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, weight loss, depression and avoidance of chemotherapy.
Depending on the stage of the disease, 30% to 75% of all patients experience pain from cancer. About 85% to 95% of cancer pain can be treated successfully. Pain can make other aspects of cancer seem worse, such as fatigue, weakness, sleep disturbance and confusion. Pain can come from the tumor itself or may be a result of cancer treatment. Pain from a tumor can be a result of the tumor growing and spreading to the bones or other organs and putting pressure on and damaging nerves. Pain from surgery is normal and may persist for months or years.
Weight loss is common among patients with cancer and is often the first sign that people with cancer notice. Up to 40% of people with cancer report unexplained weight loss at first diagnosis, and up to 80% of patients with advanced cancer experience weight loss and general wasting, called cachexia. Weight loss is more common in patients with solid tumors than in people with blood cancers. Weight loss is often associated with fatigue, weakness, loss of energy and inability to perform everyday tasks.