The side effects of cancer as a whole are many and varied. But, basically the side effects of pancreatic cancer fall into two categories:
* the problems caused by the cancerous tumors themselves, and
* the problems caused by the cancer treatments.
Because pancreatic cancer so often grows unnoticed until it is far advanced, the side effects generally only become problematic in the late stages. Many cancer patients when diagnosed actually don't feel near as bad as they do once treatment starts. And that's mainly because the tumors themselves don't cause a lot of trouble while they're small.
But as the cancerous tumors grow they cause a host of problems. We'd like to share here, with candor, the side effects of cancer that my mom has experienced and the ways we've found to cope with each.
Check back here often, as we will be adding to the list as new solutions are found and tried to the major side effects of cancer.
Side Effects of Pancreatic Cancer Itself
Her main complaint has been the pain, along with weight loss, waning appetite and fatigue. These were all becoming problems long before the cancer was actually diagnosed. Once the cancer was determined to be the culprit, measures were taken to relieve the symptoms. That began somewhat of a roller coaster of a journey to balance comfort against pain, relief against complications, and just right dosing against comatose dosing. Sometimes we've been successful, sometimes not, read on for the full scoop:
PAIN - the pancreatic cancer pain is by far the most telling side effect that mom has experienced. Her doctors explained that in most pancreatic cancer patients, the pain is caused because the tumor interferes, or interrupts the nerve endings in the pancreas. This obviously causes discomfort and pain. In mom's case, the tumor was also pressing on and blocking the common bile duct, causing increased pain in this area as well.
In a way, we are "fortunate," and I use that term loosely, that the pancreatic tumor was so close to the bile duct. The pain and attending jaundice got mom's attention quickly, resulting in visits to her doctor early enough to catch the cancer before it had spread from the pancreas. Catching it early, however, did not mean the pain went away. It has been a constant battle to keep the pain under control. And she knows that this pain will dog her until her final breath. One more thing to put on her "why I hate cancer" list.
WEIGHT LOSS - Pancreatic cancer weight loss is a complicated thing. It can be caused by the tumors themselves as well as the cancer treatments. Mom has always been slender. Not much extra fat to lose, so in the beginning, her waning appetite and consequential weight loss were alarming. As her treatment progressed, it has become more concerning. It ranks right up there on the side effects of cancer list. Along with the pain, mom fears that this side effect will also dog her until the last days. Add that to the "why I hate cancer" list. Boy is that list getting long.
FATIGUE - This is more than just tiredness. Cancer-related fatigue is an almost paralyzing, excessive whole-body tiredness that is not relieved by rest or sleep. I add this to the list here, because it is indeed caused by the cancer itself, but it is also one of the biggest side effects of the cancer treatments too. So it really belongs in both places.
Mom found that when the fatigue hit, she just had to surrender to it. The more she tried to fight it and work around the house, the worse it became. Although sleep and rest don't resolve the tiredness, resting allowed the body to focus its energy on the cancer fight, rather than expending that energy on washing dishes or making gourmet meals.
Because mom has always been a doer, always been self-sufficient, the hardest part I think was allowing others to do for her. The funny thing is, that's what her friends and family most needed to do. We can't fight the cancer for her, but we sure can cook meals, change bed-sheets and run errands. It made us a part of the solution. Gave us something tangible to do to help.
TIP - If fatigue is stalking you on your pancreatic cancer journey, follow mom's example - put yourself to bed, allow your body the rest it's craving and let others help.
LYMPHEDEMA - this is another one of the side effects of cancer that could be listed in both places. Lymphedema is the swelling caused by damage or blockage of the lymph system. It can be caused by the cancer tumor itself or as a side effect of the Gemzar chemo treatment. For the pancreatic cancer patient, the swelling is most often experienced in the legs.
Side Effects of Pancreatic Cancer Treatment
So, we know the side effects of cancer can be monstrous, but the side effects of cancer treatment, whether it's chemotherapy or radiation , can be just as monumentally debilitating.
You know the old adage: The cure is worse than the disease? Well, it's particularly true with cancer treatments.
There are many good websites that discuss side effects from A to Z. Seriously, the side effects of cancer treatment span the alphabet, from Anemia to Zerostomia. Ok, I made the last one up, it's really spelled Xerostomia. But you get the drift. Cancer side effects are serious business.
Following is a list of the most common side effects from the pancreatic cancer treatments. It's not pretty. But there are helps and tips for each side effect. Click on the highlighted word for a more detailed account of mom's journey with that side effect. Some of the tips have been more effective than others, but this pancreatic cancer journey is a work in progress. Some days the trip is more comfortable than others.
LOW BLOOD COUNTS - In particular you may experience Low Red Blood Cell Count, Low White Blood Cell Count, and/or Low Blood Platelet Count.
HAIR LOSS - cross my fingers, knock on wood, this is one side effect that mom has not experienced. Thank heavens for small mercies.
SENSORY NEUROPATHY - this side effect is most commonly associated with the chemotherapy treatment Folfirinox. Mom has not experienced this chemo regimen yet, but knows that her oncologist is holding it in reserve when the Gemzar stops working. Oh the joy we have to look forward to.
This is a general list of the common side effects experienced during pancreatic cancer treatment. For more specific information, here are two good articles to read:
One is about the chemotherapy side effects.
And one is about radiation therapy side effects.
The one treatment that I haven't covered here deals with the surgery for removing the pancreatic cancer tumor. It's called the whipple surgery. And since mom's tumor was inoperable, we don't have the experience to share on that one. I do know, from talking with doctors and other patients, that the surgery has it's own host of complications and side effects, but when performed successfully, most patients walk away survivors. There's nothing better than that.
Managing the side effects of cancer ranks right up there with living a good, quality of life. Be pro-active. Let others help. Find a doctor who values your quality of life as much as you do. Don't give up. And when the good days hit, enjoy to the fullest.
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