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Chemotherapy for Ovarian Cancer: Easing the Stress & Managing Side Effects

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WebMD Feature

Chemotherapy drugs aren't discriminating. While they're busy killing cancer cells, they can also wreak havoc on the healthy cells your body needs.

The reason chemotherapy is so damaging is that it targets all kinds of fast growing cells. "Cancer cells are fast growing cells, but other cells in the body are also fast growing. One of them is hair," says Kathleen Schmeler, MD, assistant professor in the department of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. When healthy cells get damaged, they trigger the side effects women experience during their chemotherapy treatment.

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Some chemotherapy side effects, such as fatigue, nausea, and numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes (neuropathy), are physical. Others, like hair loss, are more emotional because they can take a big hit on your self-esteem. "Women usually lose their hair two to three weeks after their first treatment. Usually they lose it all. They also lose their eyebrow hair, pubic hair --everything comes out," Schmeler says.

Every woman is different. Some women sail through chemotherapy with hardly a problem, while others struggle just to function. "I have patients who are able to continue to work full-time," says Deborah Armstrong, MD, associate professor of oncology, gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore. "I have [other] patients who can't work and can't even cook a meal." She says it's hard to predict which women will be hardest hit by their chemotherapy treatment.

Although chemotherapy affects every woman differently, overall it's a much better experience than it was a couple of decades ago because now doctors have more drugs available to relieve or even prevent side effects.

Chemotherapy Side Effects: How Your Doctor Can Help

Most of your side effects should eventually go away once your treatment ends. In the meantime, your doctor and the other members of your treatment team can help manage whatever side effects you experience.

Doctors take a proactive approach to dealing with chemotherapy side effects. Preventive drugs taken before your treatment can help ward off symptoms before they start. For example, nausea used to be one of the most debilitating side effects of chemotherapy. Today it's less of an issue because your doctor can give you anti-nausea medicines (anti-emetics) through an IV before your chemotherapy, as well as anti-nausea pills afterward.

Doctors can prevent side effects using other methods, too. For example:

  • Chemotherapy can attack your white blood cells, leaving you more vulnerable to infection. Your doctor will check your white blood cell counts regularly and may give you growth factors to stimulate your bone marrow to produce more blood cells.
  • Chemotherapy also attacks the red blood cells that carry oxygen to your body, which can lead to anemia. Your doctor might prescribe a drug to treat chemotherapy-induced anemia.
  • Abdominal pain is a side effect of intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy, which is delivered directly into the abdominal cavity (unlike IV chemotherapy, which is delivered into a vein). Your doctor will give you pain medications to relieve this symptom.
  • An infection in the catheter or port is another possible side effect of IP chemotherapy. Your doctor should monitor you carefully for an infection. If you get an infection, you'll be treated with antibiotics.

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