So often people who undergo chemotherapy hear something like this from their family, friends or other well-wishers, “Thank goodness that’s over, now you can get on with your life. You can get back to normal.” Although it’s true that chemotherapy is over, the road that the patient is on is not smooth. There are important changes that caregivers and friends need to remember.
GPS to Life After Chemotherapy
What is the “new normal” after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy? Although it depends on the cancer, there are repercussions from treatment that go beyond the specific area of treatment.
Although it has been downplayed for many years, much recent research has found that chemo brain is a common experience after chemotherapy. The University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center and the Moffit Cancer Center did a study in which researchers recruited 313 women being treated by either chemotherapy or radiation therapy. These were compared with controls and were matched by age. They tested the groups at 6 months and again at 36 months after treatment in the areas of processing speed, executive functioning and verbal abilities. They found the chemotherapy treated group performed worse than the controls in all these areas. They also found that the radiotherapy group had similar results as the chemotherapy group. The non-cancer controls cognitive abilities improved over time but the treatment groups did not.
Other research has found that the combination of chemotherapy, cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, and 5-fluorouracil used to treat certain breast cancers, is also associated with chemo brain. AnneMarie Ciccarella has devoted an entire blog to the subject.
Different Chemotherapies Affect Different Organs
While chemotherapy is killing cancer cells, it can also have detrimental effects on cells of different organs. For example, Adriamycin may be effective in treating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, acute leukemia, Kaposi sarcoma, Ewing sarcoma, Wilm tumor, and cancers of the breast, endometrium, lung, and ovary but it is one of the chemotherapies that damages heart muscle cells. The long-term side effect is a weakened heart. Infertility is also a side effect in around ten percent of all men and women who receive it.
Several chemotherapies cause numbness and burning of the feet and hands as well as constipation and fatigue are all long-term side effects. Chemotherapy also may increase the risk of getting diabetes.
One third of those who have had chemotherapy report fatigue for months or even years after treatment.
Depression and Fear
Not only is the body impacted by cancer treatments, but also the mind. Many people experience fear of recurrence that just doesn’t go away. Others become depressed. Helping your family member or friend to find support from others who have been through cancer and its treatment is vital to their well-being.
What to do as a friend, caregiver or well-wisher
Although you are eager for everything to return to the way it was for your loved one, it is important for you to realize that change has occurred. Getting to a “new normal” means accepting that there is a new normal. Life is different. Accepting that change and being supportive of your friend or loved one is important to healing. Understanding the impact of cancer treatment can go a long way toward helping your friend or loved one accept their new normal. Making the road smooth toward this new goal is your greatest gift.