Many people worry about having chemotherapy because of the possible side effects. These can range in intensity from mild to severe and may include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, mouth ulcers, hair loss, sore skin on the hands and feet, and increased susceptibility to infection. There is no way to predict exactly which side effects any one person might experience or how severe they might be.
For many people chemotherapy also presents emotional and psychological challenges. Specialist oncology nurses can provide information and support for people undergoing chemotherapy.
The majority of people said they had been given a lot of information about chemotherapy and its possible side effects before they started their treatment although this only partially prepared them for the experience. They also felt well-supported and cared for by their oncology nurses.
Stephen appreciated being with other young people on a specialist teenage cancer ward when he was having his chemotherapy. He also found going back to school during his treatment helped him cope.
Chris thinks it would be a good idea if people got their flu injection before starting chemotherapy.
People with stomas were not always adequately prepared for the effects that chemotherapy might have on them. One man with a colostomy spoke of “running to the toilet about 20 times a day” to change his bag when his chemotherapy caused severe diarrhoea. Another man with an ileostomy felt that the impact of side effects on stoma patients was not adequately recognised:
He felt that his consultant failed to acknowledge the impact of chemotherapy on stoma patients.
Chris recalled having chemotherapy. The site where the drug went into his arm became quite…
For those given chemotherapy into a vein (intravenously) devices like Hickman lines, PICC lines and portacaths (central lines that are inserted and then left in place so that drugs can be given and blood taken without having to repeatedly insert new needles), often made it easier for people to deal with their chemotherapy. For a man who was anxious about injections having a PICC line made a tremendous difference.
Having a PICC line made chemotherapy easier because of his fear of injections.
Chris found it very helpful to have a PICC line for his chemotherapy.
While he was having chemotherapy Chris experienced a number of side effects, including hand-foot…
Some people said that their fears about chemotherapy were worse than what they actually experienced. One man had nursed his late wife through chemotherapy for leukaemia and feared his own treatment would be as severe. He explains how discussing his concerns with an oncology nurse reassured him.
Having nursed his wife through chemotherapy he feared going through it himself.
Several people were especially worried about losing their hair, though the most anyone did experience was substantial thinning. One young woman explains how she feared hair loss as an unmistakeable sign of cancer:
Going to a cancer clinic for chemotherapy made her confront her own situation.
Others felt unprepared for the severity of their side effects. One woman describes how incapacitated she was despite having been told that she could go back to work:
She was too debilitated by chemotherapy to go back to work.
Those who did experience substantial side effects often found that they became worse as the treatment progressed. Several people had their treatment stopped or the dosage adjusted when they told their oncologist or oncology nurse about how bad their side effects had become.
For many, the period of their chemotherapy was a low point in their cancer experience. Some people became depressed while others were demoralised by the severity of their side effects. One man was repelled by the thought of poison going into his body and found that even the smell of the clinic upset him. Another woman described feeling as if her head was “being grilled”.
Several people described the shock of going to the cancer clinic and being surrounded by so many other sick people. For many it was the moment when the seriousness of their situation finally hit them (Interview 18).