A Timeline of Common Chemotherapy Side Effects

Like any medical procedure, patients tend to react to chemotherapy in different ways – in part because there is a wide variety of chemotherapy drugs in use, and in part because of fundamental discrepancies in patients’ internal biology. This makes it tough to nail down an exact timeline for when the side effects of chemotherapy are likely to show up, but many of the more common side effects of these medications tend to follow certain patterns that can hint to patients at what to expect through their treatments.

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Immediate Side Effects of Chemotherapy

As the drugs used in chemotherapy work their way through the body, they begin interacting with otherwise healthy tissues, often in ways that are almost immediately apparent. Listed below are a few of the more common chemo side effects that can impact a patient within 24 hours of their first treatment.

Nausea and Vomiting (Acute)

These two symptoms often occur at the same time, not long after the chemotherapy drugs first enter the body. To your brain and digestive system, chemo can seem like a harmful foreign substance – which it is, to a degree. This leads your body to try and expel the medication through the fastest means possible: vomiting. Some chemo patients experience these symptoms within hours of their infusion; when this happens, the phenomenon is referred to as “acute” nausea and vomiting.

Loss of Appetite

Many patients who undergo chemotherapy or radiation end up losing significant amounts of weight during their treatments, largely due to the fact that either can curb a person’s appetite. A patient’s loss of hunger could appear right after their first treatment, though it could also emerge later. While changes in appetite tend to resolve themselves within a few weeks of ending your chemotherapy treatments, this is one example of a side effect that could potentially last for months after your last dose.

Diarrhea and Constipation

In diarrhea and constipation, we see a continuation of chemotherapy’s impact on the digestive system. Like a loss of appetite, bowel issues like these can appear within hours of treatment or could wait to appear until several doses of the chemo drugs have built up in the system. Because either side effect could complicate treatments and endanger a patient’s health, be sure to consult a doctor if you experience one or the other for an extended period of time.

Emotional Distress

Hearing a diagnosis of cancer is certain to impact even the most stoic patient, leading to emotional distress that can take many forms. Anxiety, depression, and fear are all common responses, and they can begin to manifest well before your first treatment. While feelings of anger, despair, grief, or panic are natural, experiencing any of these to the extent that it interferes with your day-to-day life is reason enough to speak to your doctor or cancer care team, especially if your condition is exacerbated by other chemo complications such as problems sleeping, general fatigue, or chronic pain.

Delayed Side Effects of Chemo Treatments

While some symptoms of chemotherapy appear right away, others take a bit longer to appear or become noticeable. Below are some of the side effects of chemo treatments that frequently begin affecting patients within the first few days of receiving their first dose of cancer medication.

Fatigue

Many current and former chemo patients are familiar with the feelings of fatigue that accompany their treatments – the lack of energy, apathy, and muscle weakness that make even the simplest everyday tasks seem impossible. Cancer-related fatigue typically worsens in the days immediately following a chemotherapy infusion, then becomes progressively less severe in the week or weeks that follow. If you experience severe fatigue, be sure to check with your doctor and ask whether it is solely due to the chemo drugs themselves, as this symptom can sometimes be a sign of something more severe, such as anemia or depression.

Nausea and Vomiting (Delayed)

While some patients will see these symptoms appear within a day or so, many others will experience what is known as “delayed” nausea and vomiting, or that which appears in the days following treatment. The differences between acute and delayed nausea and vomiting can be caused by a number of factors, including the drugs that are administered, the timing of the doses, and the method of administration.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Nerve pain is a fairly common side effect of chemotherapy. For some patients, it manifests as more of a tingly, pins-and-needles type of sensation, while others experience severe pain and even changes to their heart rate, blood pressure, or breathing. The appearance of neuropathy is difficult to predict; some patients see it emerge within hours of their first treatment, though it can hide for weeks or months as the chemotherapy medications build up in the system, only appearing after several doses have been administered. Peripheral neuropathy can also linger well past the end of a patient’s treatments, sometimes plaguing a person for months or years.

Cognitive Dysfunction (“Chemo Brain”)

One of the most prevalent but least-understood side effects of chemotherapy is the so-called “chemo brain,” the mental fog that descends on those undergoing chemotherapy treatments. This ailment can occur at any point during or after treatments begin; some patients even start experiencing symptoms before their first round of chemotherapy. The exact nature of this condition remains unclear, though it is thought to have a combination of causes including the stress of a cancer diagnosis, chemical changes caused by the disease, the effects of chemotherapy and radiation on the nerves, and the impact of other treatment complications such as insomnia or anemia. For many patients, the effects of chemo brain dissipate after treatments end, but for others, it is a struggle that can continue for years.

Later Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Still, other side effects of chemotherapy can appear a week or more after the beginning of a treatment regimen. These include some of the most severe symptoms of cancer treatments, a few of which are listed below.

Mouth Sores (Oral Mucositis)

As the chemotherapy drugs circulate through the body, they often come into contact with the sensitive mucous membranes of the mouth, causing the formation of painful, bleeding sores, along with inflammation and a lack of saliva; combined, the symptoms of this condition can make it extremely difficult to speak, eat, or drink, leading many patients to become dehydrated or malnourished. The initial signs of oral mucositis typically appear about one week after a chemo treatment, lasting anywhere from two to four weeks after the treatments have ended.

Hair Loss

Perhaps the most well-known side effects of chemotherapy, hair loss can be a source of discomfort or embarrassment for many patients. This side effect usually begins within two weeks of a patient’s first treatment; clumps of hair tend to be lost when washing or brushing, though the extent of this loss can vary from person to person. Hair loss reaches its worst point about a month after treatments begin, though many patients start to see their hair growing back even before their chemo cycle has ended.

Malnutrition and Dehydration

As the many side effects of chemotherapy begin to set in, a substantial number of patients will begin to lose weight. The changes in diet that happen around this time are the result of a number of factors, including changes in a person’s sense of taste or appetite, nausea that makes meals difficult to keep down, and the appearance of mouth sores that can make chewing and swallowing extremely painful. This combination of symptoms can create a powerful incentive for patients to skip meals or avoid drinking liquids, potentially leading to malnutrition and dehydration. Either development can cause delays in treatment and endanger a patient’s welfare, making it imperative to discuss these issues with a doctor.

Neutropenia (Low White Blood Cell Count)

Those who undergo chemotherapy treatments are often at a much higher risk of developing an infection because of the damage this type of procedure can do to a person’s bone marrow. As the chemo drugs hinder the production of blood cells in the marrow, the level of white blood cells in the body drops precipitously about a week after treatment, usually hitting a low point (called a nadir) between 7 and 14 days after a patient’s most recent dose. It can take another three to four weeks after that for the body to regain healthy levels of these critical cells, restoring the immune system to working order and reestablishing a defense against infection.

Sex and Fertility

Patients may be reluctant to talk about it, but chemotherapy often has a detrimental effect on a patient’s sex life, their ability to conceive, or both. Certain developments, such as a drastic dip in white blood cell counts, can force patients to abstain from sex for the sake of their health, while other complications related to chemo – mental side effects such as depression, for instance, or physical issues like nerve pain – can affect a patient’s libido or overall comfort with sex. Both men and women have also reported lasting fertility issues stemming from their chemotherapy treatments; some of these effects are temporary, but others can last for the rest of a patient’s life.

Battle Chemotherapy Side Effects with the Chemo Mouthpiece™

Many different treatments exist to help cancer patients endure the side effects that follow chemotherapy and radiation, though some work better than others. The Chemo Mouthpiece™ is a powerful cryotherapy device designed to combat the effects of oral mucositis by shrinking the blood vessels of the mouth with freezing temperatures, thereby limiting the amount of chemo chemicals that can access the area. Learn more about how you can harness the power of cryotherapy to prevent mouth sores after chemo; visit the Chemo Mouthpiece™ website or call us at (866) 461-7518 today.