All newly diagnosed patients need information about both their illness and their treatment. Chemotherapy, or “chemo” for short, is a treatment which many people will have certainly heard of, but about which few will have had any personal experience.
Traditionally, before starting their treatment, one of the Ward’s senior nursing staff would spend time with the patient, explaining what would happen, and what to expect. Of course, at this point in a patient’s illness, it is often very difficult for that person to grasp all of what they are being told, and what it all means to them and to their carers.
How your chemotherapy is administered
Chemotherapy just means the use of anti cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells within your body.
Your chemotherapy will be administered either as tablets or injection, usually in the arm; and sometimes you will be given a combination of both.
Whichever method is chosen by your medical team, the drugs are absorbed into the blood and transported around the body in order to reach the cancer cells. When the chemotherapy comes into contact with a cancer cell it is designed to interfere with the way it multiplies – eventually leading to its destruction.
Depending upon the nature of the cancer, chemotherapy may be used alone or supported with sessions of radiotherapy.
Possible side effects
Side effects can occur however your chemotherapy is administered. Remember though, this is not to say that as an individual you will experience all or even any side effects. However, it is always better to be prepared, then if things do happen, you will have a much better idea of what steps you can take to reduce their effect.
Feeling sick or actually being sick are some not uncommon side effects. However, keep in mind that because of the highly effective anti-sickness medication that will also form part of your treatment, you may never experience these unpleasant sensations.
If you do experience difficulties with nausea or vomiting it is important that you inform your doctor or nurse so that your anti sickness treatment can be adjusted to suit.
As well as an upset stomach, chemotherapy can affect your bowel, causing either diarrhoea or constipation. If either of these occur or if you are concerned about the effect chemotherapy may have in this respect please talk to your doctor or nurse at the hospital, additional treatments are available.
Apart from the digestive system, chemotherapy can affect other areas of the body. These include your mouth, your hair and your skin.
To help reduce the occurrence of mouth ulcers, ensure your mouth is kept clean and moist. You will be given a mouthwash to take home after your first treatment, and we recommend that you always use this after a meal.
Mouth ulcers can become painful and in some cases additional treatment may be necessary. If mouth ulcers do appear and concern you, please contact the hospital and ask for advice, don’t suffer in silence!
Hair loss is one of the most common side effects and for some people the most distressing. Not all chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss so before becoming worried about losing you hair discuss this possibility with your doctor.
If chemotherapy does affect your hair please remember that however much hair you lose, its loss is always temporary, it does grow back!
If you are going to lose your hair, then depending on the nature of your chemotherapy,, it can start to happen after the first three or four weeks of treatment. If you wish, your nurse can organise a wig for you to wear until your own hair returns to your satisfaction.
Some types of chemotherapy can cause your skin to become dry or discoloured. You should report any rashes or skin irritation to your hospital doctor or nurse.
You may notice that your nails grow more slowly with perhaps white lines forming across them.
During and after your treatment your skin is almost certain to be more sensitive to sunlight. Because of this it is very important to take special care of your skin by covering up well or applying adequate sunscreen creams. Sunbathing is not recommended, and the same applies to the use of sunbeds and sun lamps.
If you are at all concerned about this, then do discuss the issue with your hospital doctor or nurse.
Keep well, keep a thermometer!
Chemotherapy reduces the number of blood cells produced, so there are fewer white cells available to help fight infection.
In view of this, during chemotherapy you should take care to avoid unnecessary exposure to potentially infectious situations. These could include crowds of people, or individuals who are unwell.
Additionally, we strongly advise all patients undergoing chemotherapy to have access to a thermometer.
Using a thermometer can be very helpful if you feel generally unwell, cold or shivery. Your normal temperature is 37C. If your temperature has risen above 38C on two consecutive readings taken at 30 minutes apart, it may indicate an infection and will require you to be seen and examined by one of the hospital doctors.
The hospital should be informed by telephone immediately your raised temperature has been taken for the second time.
It really is very important that you get to the hospital as quickly as possible regardless of what time of the day or night your raised temperature occurs.
Don’t be tempted to wait and see what happens, or assume that by calling at night you’ll be seen as a nuisance – you won’t be. Remember, prevention is better than cure, and although unlikely a temperature may be the first indication of something quite serious if it’s not dealt with promptly.
While your blood counts are low, you should think carefully about travelling too far from Swansea.
Making sure that you can reach Singleton within sixty minutes or so is probably a good idea under such circumstances. If you are concerned about travelling, do discuss this with a member of our medical team, who’ll do their best to help.
How often and how long your treatments take will depend on the type of cancer you have and the way your body responds to the treatment.
Each course of chemotherapy may be one session or may consist of several sessions to complete one course. A session may last from 30 minutes up to several weeks. After each course there will be a rest period during which time your body will be able to recover from the effects of the treatment.
So your individual treatment can be carefully monitored, you may at certain intervals be required to have routine scans or x-rays. The result of these can help the medical team assess the effectiveness of your treatment, and plan accordingly.
It's not all side effects!
It is not at all uncommon for chemotherapy to actually make you feel better by reducing the symptoms of cancer. This is after all the intention! However, if you do feel unwell during the treatment be assured that advice and help are always available to you from your medical team at Singleton.
Some people do feel very tired during their treatment. This is quite normal and is often the most evident towards the end of the courses of chemotherapy.
We do advise you to restrict any unnecessary activities and not to be afraid to ask for help from willing friends and family members in doing the shopping or the housework.
If there is a special occasion you want to attend or you want to have a short holiday it may be possible to arrange the timing of your treatment to suit, so please do ask.
Remember, the aim of the Singleton haematology team is to treat your cancer, and at the same time allow you to lead as normal a life as possible.
Secretary - Mrs Sue Thomas
Merrysun, Oxwich, Swansea SA3 1LN
Mob: 07905 677505
Chair - Mrs Karen Shreeve
115 Belgrave Road, Gorseinon, Swansea SA4 6RE
Mob: 07774 277818
Treasurer - Mr Graham Lardner
Uplands Lodge, Pwll, Carmarthenshire SA16 0TD
Tel: 07875 958225
Lymphoma Leukaemia Myeloma Fund (Wales) (LLMF) is registered with the Charities Commission England & Wales Reg. No.1063997.