Alongside cancer treatment comes the bombardment of side effects, whether it’s from surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or medication. I’ll discuss why reporting your side effects is important, strategies for tracking side effects, and how to know when to reach out to your care team.
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Before I had surgery and radiation to treat my breast cancer, my doctors reviewed a long list of side effects. Before chemo started, I actually took a two-hour prep course at the hospital. Just like the SAT prep course, it was thorough and prepared all of us for the big test ahead. The instructors went through the different drugs we would be injected with, how it would work, the various side effects and more.
I remember some of the most random side effects that seemed to amuse me during my treatment:
- My pee smelled so bad after chemo that I almost threw up.
- The chemicals oozing out of my pores was equally as displeasing. We called it “Chemo Funk.”
- My GI tract went haywire and I had an epic case of the walking farts.
- My fingernails turned brown and fell off.
I learned that you can either laugh or cry during all of this, and I chose to laugh because it felt better for my soul. But the side effects are serious business, and knowing how to handle them and when to call for help is critical.
That is why I’m excited to work with Med-IQ on this article, and with Lillie D. Shockney, RN, BS, MAS, ONN-CG, University Distinguished Service Professor of Breast Cancer and Professor of Surgery, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Med-IQ is an accredited medical education company that provides an exceptional educational experience for physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals.
In this article, I will discuss:
- Why reporting your side effects is important.
- Strategies for tracking side effects.
- How to know when to reach out to your care team.
Why Reporting Side Effects/Symptoms Is Important
As overwhelming as it is, be sure to pay attention to what the doctors share about the side effects for each treatment you go through. Keep this list of side effects in a convenient location.
It’s also important to discuss all of your symptoms with your medical team because everyone is going to experience their side effects differently. Don’t feel like it’s not important. IT IS. Don’t be embarrassed about your bodily functions gone wild. Your doctors have seen and heard it all. And then some.
Everyone’s treatment protocol is different, and your care team needs to monitor how you are handling your treatment. They need to know if any of your medications or treatments need to be altered, and even if you need to start or stop taking over-the-counter vitamins. It’s important to share both minor and major side effects, along with ones you experience that aren’t on the list. (1)
Constipated? There’s a stool softener for that. But wait. Is it ok to take one? Have the conversation with your care team. You will be surprised what they can do to help alleviate some of your uncomfortable symptoms alongside treatment.
Strategies for Tracking Side Effects/Symptoms
Keeping track of your side effects doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools that make it easy for you to track these effects and symptoms.
On the American Cancer Society’s website, they offer:
- Chemotherapy Side Effects Worksheet
- Radiation Side Effects Worksheet
- Pain Diary
- Medicine List Tracker.
Side effects worksheets help you to track what the side effect is, and how severe it is. These are most helpful if you monitor and record this information every day so you can notice trends and show your doctor at your next appointment.
The Pain Diary is helpful to analyze your pain score, how it feels, how long it lasted, and what medicine you were taking at the time.
The Medicine List Tracker is a life saver. I had no idea how much medicine I would have to take throughout treatment and how difficult it is to remember when and how much to take everything. This tracker helps you to organize all of your meds so you know when to take them and on what days.
Here at Pink Fortitude, we also have an article on “How to Organize Your Medical Files and Why It’s Important.”
Additionally, it’s helpful to keep a list of questions to ask your doctor. Which brings me to another important PS. Your family and friends are going to want to give you all kinds of advice about your treatment and side effects. Bless their hearts. They mean well. Thank them for their concern and let them know you are in good hands with a great care team.
When to Reach Out to Your Care Team
It’s not just about the side effects. It’s also knowing what is “normal” and when something is more severe that you need to call your doctor or even 911.
For my treatment protocol, one of the worst side effects was bone pain. I remember lying in bed at night crying because the bone pain was so bad. Fortunately, my care team discussed this with me, and I knew not only what to expect, but that it was “normal.”
I was also very blessed that my team gave me a 24/7 phone number and said that if I was struggling or wasn’t sure about something, they would rather me call and talk to someone.
It’s not a matter of if the side effects will happen, it’s when and how severe. According to Cancer.net (3), be sure to discuss with your care team:
- Which side effects should I call you for?
- When should I call 911 or go to the emergency room?
- What number should I call during and after business hours?
- Is there an email address that I can use to contact you?
Talk to your doctor about the threshold of severe symptoms and when (and how) to contact them, along with when to call 911. The American Cancer Society (1) offers these suggestions of when to immediately call your doctor, 911, or go to an emergency room:
- A fever of 100.5°F or higher.
- Bleeding or unexplained bruising.
- A rash or severe itching, allergic reaction, including swelling of the throat.
- Intense chills.
- Pain or soreness at the injection site.
- Unusual or increased pain.
- Shortness of breath.
- Long-lasting diarrhea or vomiting.
- Blood in your urine or stool.
Cancer.net (3) adds:
- Blood clots.
- Infections or pneumonia.
The side effects during cancer treatment will be numerous. But managing them doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Keep an open line of communication with your care team. There are plenty of resources out there to help you. You’ve got this.
Before we wrap up, I strongly encourage you to participate in the following survey about cancer-related symptoms and side effects. This anonymous survey will take less than 15 minutes to complete, and you will be entered into a drawing to win 1 of 10 $100 VISA gift cards. No personal information will be kept, sold, or stored in the survey completion process and any responses will be shared in aggregate only.
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1. American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy Side Effects. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy/chemotherapy-side-effects.html.
2. American Cancer Society. Tools to Monitor Treatment. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/tools-to-monitor-treatment.html.
3. Cancer.Net. When to Call the Doctor During Cancer Treatment. https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/when-call-doctor-during-cancer-treatment.
4. Talking to Your Health Care Team About Treatment Side Effects. https://www.cancercare.org/publications/335-talking_to_your_health_care_team_about_treatment_side_effects.