Tag Archive for: Treatment side effects

How Treatment Side Effects Impact Mental Health and Decision-Making

Cancer is a long, hard road that no one wants to travel down. When it strikes you, though, being strong is no longer an option, but a necessity. You are probably prepared for the physical impacts of this life changing diagnosis, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

What you might not expect, though, are the impacts that your treatment can have on your mental health and decision-making.

Depression and Anxiety

If you are going through chemo, you probably braced yourself for the nausea and fatigue that you knew would accompany your treatment. Once you were in the midst of it, however, you may have found that the mental and emotional impacts of chemo treatments are as great as the physical ones, if not greater.

It’s not difficult to understand why. The treatments themselves are inherently stressful, but what you may find even more distressing is how the treatments disrupt your daily life. These disruptions often occur not only on infusion day, but also on the days leading up to and following treatment.

In other words, you might quickly begin to feel as if your entire life is revolving around your chemotherapy, whether you are preparing for your infusion or recovering from it. You may mourn the loss of your daily routine. Your fatigue may interfere with your ability to work, take care of your home, or simply do the things you enjoy. All this can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.

The good news, however, is that there are things you can do to manage your emotions and nurture your mental health, even in this challenging time. This begins, above all, with giving yourself permission to feel what you need to feel, to grieve when you need to grieve, or to be angry when you need to be angry.

At the same time, getting stuck in these dark emotions isn’t good for your physical or mental health. That’s why it’s essential to track how you are feeling and to know when and how to seek help when you need it.

Daily journaling can help you process your emotions, while leaning on your support group can provide the comfort and the perspective you need to move through them.

Expecting the Unexpected

One of the most challenging aspects of the cancer journey from a mental health perspective is how unpredictable it can be. It’s difficult to prepare for a challenge, after all, if you don’t know what’s coming.

For example, vision problems are a common but often unexpected side effect of cancer treatment. Many patients experience dry eyes, eye pain, and blurriness as a result of their treatment. This can further increase emotional distress not only because such visual impacts can compromise your daily functioning but also because vision and mental health, research is increasingly showing, are deeply interconnected. Indeed, the brain’s visual processing centers lie primarily in its deepest structures, many of which are also responsible for emotion and mood.

Treatment and Decision-Making

When you are in the fight of your life, and you are truly feeling all the physical and emotional impacts of that fight, it’s not only your mental health that may be undermined; you may find it difficult to make rational decisions. When you are worried, fatigued, and sick, your brain simply cannot process information as efficiently or well.

You might find yourself, for instance, making rash and unwise decisions, or you may find yourself unable to make any decision at all. This is why it is important to surround yourself both with friends and family and with healthcare providers you trust.

Such a support network can help guide you through choices that you may be unable to make on your own when the treatment side effects have sapped your energy, stolen your focus, and deflated your mood.

Indeed, because your support network is so important when you’re undergoing treatment, you may find yourself needing to make some major decisions even before your treatment journey begins. For example, if you live in an isolated, rural area, you may determine that it is best for your physical and mental health to relocate, at least temporarily, to the city.

Living in the city can ensure that you have consistent and easy access to your entire healthcare team, including mental healthcare providers. Not only can this make treatment easier when you’re feeling especially tired or unwell, but such proximity to your trusted team can enable you to feel more confident and comfortable with your care, mitigating some of the stress you feel and enhancing your ability to make sound decisions.

The Takeaway

The cancer journey is a scary one, but it does not have to lead to despair. The key is learning how the journey, including your treatment, can impact your mental health and your decision-making. Armed with such knowledge, you can take the steps you need to nurture your mental and emotional well-being even as you fight to recover your physical health.

Which Factors Impact DLBCL Treatment Decisions?

Which Factors Impact DLBCL Treatment Decisions? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When making a decision about diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) treatment, what should you consider? Dr. Justin Kline reviews key patient factors that impact therapy decisions, including comorbidities and treatment side effects.

Dr. Justin Kline is the Director of the Lymphoma Program at the University of Chicago Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Kline, here.

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Other than a newly diagnosed patient’s stage of DLBCL and their age, what other factors would impact a treatment decision?

Dr. Kline:       

Yeah. So, that’s a good question, so you named I think the biggest two, the most important two. Although I have to say that even people in their – oftentimes in their 80s are prescribed full dose therapy. The goal of our treatment, especially in newly diagnosed patients, is to cure the lymphoma, and so we tend to be aggressive. But outside of age, other things we consider are other health problems. Does the person have a healthy heart, healthy kidneys? How many other medical problems does the person have? How fit is the person? How sick is the person or symptomatic is the person from him or her lymphoma? And sometimes we take into consideration all those factors and we say, well, it’s still worth it to try to deliver the most intensive therapy that we can.

Other times we say, you know what? I think the risk of doing such is probably not worth the potential benefit, and so sometimes we’ll recommend dose reductions, reduce the doses of some of the medicines and the R-CHOP cocktail if that’s what we’re going to do, and occasionally, if the person has too many other things going on, we may talk about more palliative treatments, in other words, gentler treatments that may extend a person’s survival while hopefully maintaining a really good quality of life.


Yeah. What kind of side effects should patients expect?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, that’s a conversation I’ve had many, many, many times over the years. And specifically to the R-CHOP cocktail, just because that’s the one that’s used most commonly, I tell people that the most common things are symptoms like fatigue, occasionally nausea, sometimes vomiting, although the medications we have to prevent those things are very good these days.

Constipation is not uncommon, hair loss, mouth sores. I think probably the most important thing is to recognize that the chemotherapy will suppress or reduce the immune system, and so we’re always worried about people catching infections when they’re on chemotherapy, because sometimes they can be serious. And then I talk about rare symptoms that are a big deal. Sometimes the chemotherapy can damage organs like the heart. It’s uncommon, but it happens sometimes. And chemotherapy, while we need to give it to cure the lymphoma, can sometimes cause secondary blood cancers like leukemias years down the road. The risk is low, but again, these are I think serious things that people, even if they’re rare, people need to know about them before they start.

Are Clinical Trials Too Risky? A Lung Cancer Expert Reviews the Facts.

Are Clinical Trials Too Risky? A Lung Cancer Expert Reviews the Facts. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Some patients fear that clinical trials may be too experimental and risky. Dr. Martin Edelman outlines the clinical trial process and addresses myths surrounding trials. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

Dr. Martin J. Edelman is Chair of the Department of Hematology/Oncology and Deputy Director for Clinical Research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. More about this expert here.

View more from Fact or Fiction? Lung Cancer

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Here’s the last one that I have on my list here. Clinical trials are experimental and risky.

Dr. Edelman:

Yeah. Well, so is the rest of life. So, there generally – is there risk? Yes. Essentially, every patient is always a trial because we for the most part don’t – even in the disease states where we have very active treatment – so, let’s say – for example, we were talking about the EGFR mutation. So, we have excellent drugs. We have a drug now, osimertinib – outstanding drug, easy to take, low risk of side effects.

The earlier generations – there was a lot of rash, diarrhea. That’s been pretty much done away with. But on average, patients benefit from this drug for about a year and a half.

So, that’s not great if you’re 40 or 50 years old. You want to do better. So, what are our current studies? Well, we’re looking – we’re re-addressing a question that we thought had been answered, but really it wasn’t – about, well, what’s the value of chemotherapy plus this drug? What about the value of other drugs?

So, we can’t promise anybody anything, but our current treatments are still not good enough. There are certain diseases, let’s say Hodgkin’s disease, where you know you’re gonna cure almost all the patients up front or testicular cancer, etcetera, where – again, but thanks to trials, clinical trials, we now are at that stage. We’re not there yet in lung cancer, and the reality is is every patient should really be on a study. I think it’s – and we have this problem now in that our studies have also become far more complicated to enter people in because there are many more variables one has to look at it. What’s the molecular background of the tumor? How many prior therapies?

The condition of the patient, their organ function, etcetera – and the regulatory burden has become much, much greater. But clinical patients are in clinical trials. Let’s look at the question. Are they risky? Well, everything is risky, but we do a lot to manage that risk. Patients who are in studies are observed more closely. We have to. It’s the law. There’s frequently additional personnel assigned. They’re usually getting standard of care plus a new treatment or a new treatment followed by the standard of care or some variation of that.

They’re observed, like I said, much more carefully than we would otherwise. And so, I think actually patients on trials generally will do better, and we actually have evidence. Multiple individuals have looked at this – everything from first-in-man trials or early dose escalation studies, controlled studies – that show that patients, even those on the control arm, generally do better than similar types of patients who are not treated on studies because we just are more careful.

And the physician who participates in trials is generally someone who has a greater knowledge of the disease.

The Truth About Managing Lung Cancer Treatment Side Effects

The Truth About Managing Lung Cancer Treatment Side Effects from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are lung cancer treatment side effects avoidable? Dr. Martin Edelman reviews effective management strategies. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

Dr. Martin J. Edelman is Chair of the Department of Hematology/Oncology and Deputy Director for Clinical Research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. More about this expert here.

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Let’s talk a little bit about some of the concerns that patients have about the side effects. Let’s see: Side effects are unavoidable.

Dr. Edelman:

Well, that’s not true. As I said, what were the side effects? If you go back a couple decades and you ask patients what were they concerned about, many of them were concerned about nausea and vomiting. And that is largely a thing of the past. Many patients will still have some queasiness with treatment, but even our most nausea-producing drugs – we really do have outstanding drugs for the prevention of that. You have to use them. You have to take them.

It’s very important to give them appropriately. There are very excellent guidelines that are out there. Sometimes, patients are still undertreated, no question about that. Not every drug has industry strong backing. There’s one drug – for example, olanzapine, (Zyprexa) was actually developed as an antipsychotic, and I always tell the patients, “No, I don’t think you’re crazy.”

But it’s at a lower dose, and we have excellent, excellent evidence that that drug given for a few evenings after chemotherapy is extraordinarily effective along with the other drugs in preventing nausea and vomiting. So, that’s one thing.

Hair loss is still somewhat inevitable with certain drugs – the taxanes. But many of our regimens don’t cause hair loss.

Or as I tell folks – only you and your hairdresser will know for sure because its hair on the pillow, but the average person won’t pick you out of a crowd. Those are big concerns still. There still are potentially life-threatening effects from chemotherapy, and we spend a lot of time educating people about that. But those are not inevitable, and it’s actually a minority of patients in lung cancer.

One should not confuse – there are different malignancies. Still, the treatments for say leukemia, though even that’s changing, can be extraordinarily toxic or the bone marrow transplant patients. Many, not just lung cancer, but in the other diseases as well – many of the things that people attribute to the drugs are more due to the disease. So, I always say, “The greatest failure and side effects to the drugs are they don’t work well enough because the side effects of the disease can be considerable.” So, that’s the bigger issue. The immunotherapeutic drugs have a rather interesting set of side effects.

They are clearly initially or frequently better tolerated than the older cytotoxics, which still have an extremely valuable place in the treatment and cure of lung cancer. The immunotherapeutics have clearly been quite beneficial, but their side effects can be subtle and far less predictable and can be very severe. Virtually, any organ in the body can be affected by this. We like to say, “If it ends in ‘itis,’ you can get it from immunotherapeutics.”

So, there are lots of side effects, no question. But they can be managed. They can be prevented. They can be treated. Sometimes, we have to abandon a drug. So, people who get severe – what we call immunotherapy-related adverse events – may not be able to continue on their drugs. But even that is not necessarily always the case.


This next one really gets to the heart of the doctor-patient relationship. I shouldn’t share my side effects with my healthcare team because I don’t want them to stop my treatment routine.

Dr. Edelman:

Well, you can’t prevent the side effects if you don’t know about them. And I always would tell patients, I said, “You know, if you’re having a problem, please don’t call me at 4:00 on Friday afternoon. I’m gonna end up sending you to the emergency room, which I may anyway.” But a lot of times, we can solve certain things over the phone. There are a lot of side effects that can be treated and particularly if one is aware early on. So, yeah, you should share the side effects because how’s somebody gonna know how to deal with them?

Now, the problem we run into sometimes is in a population that’s on average 60s and 70s, could be younger. There’re lots of things that can be just part of ordinary life. Everybody gets headaches, back pain, etcetera, etcetera.

We have to treat those sometimes and evaluate them much more aggressively because of the possibility of them being related to disease or drug, but it helps to sort it out. You can’t be too blasé about it because sometimes things need to be looked at very urgently, particularly with immunotherapeutic drugs. Some of the side effects that can be severe can sometimes be very subtle in their onset.

Helping to Manage Side Effects in Lung Cancer Treatment

Interview with Susan Varghese, RN, MSN at MD Anderson Cancer Center

Andrew Schorr interviews Susan Varghese, a 10-year nurse practitioner veteran with lung cancer patients, about the side effects associated with treatment. She begins by explaining some of the common side effects, like the ones listed here:

  • Fatigue
  • Change in appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

Initially, she suggests managing your side effects with over the counter drugs, but if that does not work there are several new drugs available. These drugs can be administered before, during, and even after treatments. The main goal is to keep a healthy, nutritious diet and maintain your weight so you have the strength to fight your disease. And remember, communication with your medical team is key to getting the care you need. Watch the video below to hear all of Susan’s knowledge and advice.

Helping to Manage Side Effects in Lung Cancer Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.