Beating Down Chemo's Ill Effects

Are you feeling like you don’t know what to do first … throw up, fall over from sheer exhaustion, or pinch yourself to make sure the hands and feet you can’t feel are still there? I know, not funny. Unfortunately, chemo isn’t as discriminatory as we’d like; the drugs kill the good cells but are rough on healthy ones too. So getting through chemo camp often means having to tread rough terrain. To help you through the unpleasantries, I’ve compiled research from several medical resources as well as from a few of the masters themselves—soldiers who’ve tested what’s out there and found what works for them. This is my “Standing up to Chemo: Greatest Hits” album.

Let’s start with nausea

Would you believe our brains actually have a vomiting center? Chemo turns that center on by causing the body to release serotonin, dopamine, and histamine. Fortunately anti-nausea drugs have gotten better at working around this glitch. Compazine is often effective in that it blocks dopamine. You should take it about three hours after chemo and for two or three days after treatment. If you still start to feel nauseous, you can add Zofran to your arsenal; to be taken at the first twinge of upset.

Diet may help fight nausea too. Eating five or six small meals throughout the day is easier on your digestion. Bland foods may become your king’s meal; mashed potatoes, oatmeal, crackers, pudding, and fruit are all kind to your stomach. As far as drinks, warm and fizzy helps. Try warm 7-Up or ginger ale. Otherwise clear juices are good. If you can’t stomach fluids of any kind, try juice popsicles.

Let’s move on to diarrhea and constipation

If you have one or the other, or are lucky enough to have both, know that Senekot is a gentle, effective laxative. Immodium works for the opposite problem. Certain foods can jump start digestion. For instance high-fiber foods like All-Bran cereal and muffins are binding. You can also up your fiber intake by replacing white rice and pasta with brown, and swapping your white potato for sweet potatoes. Prunes, dried apricots and soothing bean soups help keep you regular.

Mouth sores are another culprit

Chemo goes after fast-growing cells, and doesn’t stop when it gets to the mucous lining in our mouths. So go easy on your teeth and gums. Biotene toothpaste may help. Brush often and floss daily. Use a mouthwash without alcohol, and if over-the-counter products aren’t working, your oncologist can prescribe something more effective.

Pain from neuropathy (numbness or tingling to extremities) typically comes with the territory, too

You can combat the pain with more drugs or alternative methods. Conventional drugs include acitaminophen (Tylenol) or non-steroid anti-inflammatories like Ibuprofen for mild pain. If these drugs don’t take care of the problem, and it worsens, you may bite the bullet with opioid medications like hydrocodone, codein, or oxycodone. Then there are drugs for breakthrough pain (flairs between pain medication doses). Of course, you’ll need to have the conversation with your doctor to determine what’s best for you.

If you prefer to go au naturelle, the National Institutes of Health has given its seal of approval to techniques like relaxation, visualization, hypnosis, and biofeedback for chemo-induced pain

Relaxation can reduce muscle tension, help with sleep, boost energy, and reduce anxiety. Examples are deep breathing and progressive relaxation. Through progressive relaxation you lie down, clench and release individual muscle groups, eventually focusing on the places that hurt.

Visualization involves using a symbol to imagine the transformation of pain; for example, a blazing fire doused by water. There are audiotapes to teach these techniques. Then there’s electrical stimulation; one of the more common forms is PENS (Percutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation), which combines acupuncture with electrical stimulation of the nerves.

Good luck along your way to good health, with chemo in your corner while standing up to the not-at-all-fun effects.

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