Side Effects of Cancer

What, why, and how to cope

The treatment of a cancer may include the use of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, surgery or some combination of all of these or other therapeutic options, all of which are directed at killing cancer cells. Unfortunately, cancer treatments may also damage normal, healthy cells that are not affected by the cancer. The result of this damage is a complication, or side effect, of treatment.

At VCI, our goal is to help you fight cancer while enjoying the highest quality of life possible. This includes helping you understand and manage the side effects of your treatment.

Why do side effects occur?

Side effects occur because most cancer treatments cannot distinguish between cancer cells and normal, healthy cells. For example, chemotherapy damages rapidly dividing cells, a hallmark trait of cancer cells. In the process, healthy cells that are also rapidly dividing, such as blood cells and the cells lining the mouth and GI tract, are also damaged. Radiation therapy kills some healthy cells that are in the path of the radiation or near the cancer being treated. Newer radiation therapy techniques can reduce, but not eliminate, this damage.

Why are side effects important?

Treatment side effects can cause patients inconvenience and discomfort and occasionally can lead to death. The expected outcome from the therapy plan is based upon delivery of treatment at the prescribed, optimal dosage and schedule. If the side effects prevent that from being fulfilled, the treatment plan is derailed.

Fortunately, in the last 15 years a great deal of progress has been made toward preventing and controlling these possible side effects. New medications have vastly improved the management of symptoms associated with cancer treatment, allowing greater accuracy and consistency in the administration of the therapy. These new drugs have made many cancer treatments more widely available to patients throughout the world.

Common side effects