Have you ever read the fine print on a medication’s warning label that lists all of the potential side effects? It can be overwhelming. Although you may experience some of the side effects of cancer or its treatment, hopefully you will not experience the bevy of effects listed.
Everyone’s journey is different, and it’s important to talk with your medical team about the risks and rewards of treatment. Ideally, patients should ask which toxicities to be on the lookout for and keep a journal to track symptoms, as well as notes about physical and mental health during treatment.
For sociology professor Steve Buechler, his diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) happened pretty quickly after routine blood work showed that his white blood cell counts were way out of the normal range. Because AML progresses rapidly, it’s important to start treatment shortly after diagnosis. Steve was in treatment so fast that he barely had time to think about immunosuppression and how it would affect his daily life.
“When this happens to you, it's a tremendous shock,” Steve said. “But it's reassuring to know all over the country, thousands of patients and hundreds of facilities are dealing with this issue on a daily basis, and there are new treatments and new ways of addressing it.”
Immunosuppression may be brought on with drugs, as in preparation for bone marrow or other organ transplants, to prevent rejection of the donor tissue. During that time, patients must be extra careful to steer clear of anyone who is sick.
The experience of cancer fatigue is different for everyone, but it’s striking just how fatigued patients may feel. It’s much more than just being tired after a poor night’s sleep. Some patients report days where they were not able to do much more than get off the couch to use the bathroom or get a drink.
Thankfully, there are ways to mitigate this side effect and help can come in many forms.
Dr. Bram Kuiper, a clinical psychologist who has worked with cancer patients for over 32 years, suggests increasing your activity slowly each day to help you get back to or near your pre-cancer energy levels.
“Every patient, every person is unique,” said Dr. Kuiper. “We plan the future with little steps, not big steps, only little steps. And don't be disappointed if after two steps forward, there's one step backwards.”
Dr. Kuiper also recommends tracking eating habits and sleeping patterns in a journal rather than relying on memory alone.
“If you ask somebody, ‘Can you tell me about the last two weeks?’ They say, ‘Oh, oh. Where are the last two weeks?’ But if you write down every day about your moods, and about your sleep, and about the pain, etcetera, so you have a kind of diary, then you can be more precise about your progress. And then, you can figure out whether there are, for example—weekends are better or worse than the other days. So, you can see specific symptoms.”
Cancer diagnoses and treatment can cause unease and anxiety, all of which affect sleep. If you are feeling the effects of cancer fatigue, ask your doctor for help.
Protecting the Heart
One of the potential side effects of treating AML with chemotherapy is heart issues, but a new medication called dexrazoxane (Zinecard) shows promise for protecting the heart function of pediatric patients. Taken during chemotherapy treatment, dexrazoxane preserved cardiac function without compromising event-free survival and overall survival or increasing non-cardiac toxicities in kids with AML.¹
Cancer and its various treatments may cause side effects, but asking questions and having direct conversations with your medical team can help you get ahead of and prepare for most side effects. Take detailed notes about how you are feeling before, during and after treatment, check in regularly with your physician, and as always, be your own best advocate.
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