14 Weird Side Effects of Cancer Treatments

by Jane Ashley

Weird Side Effects

Nose Bleeds

When we begin cancer treatment, we are sailing into “uncharted waters” — we’re about to being something that we’ve never done before. We’re nervous, even scared, about the side effects.

Most of us already know about the common side effects of cancer treatment:

Nausea or vomiting
Weight loss
Hair loss
Compromised immune system

Many patients have a chemo orientation or their oncologist gives them a list of their medications and possible side effects (also available on ChemoCare.com). Our radiology oncologist or their nurse should advise us of potential side effects. But they can’t tell you every uncommon side effect that we might experience.

14 Weird Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

There are several uncommon side effects that we may not associate with our cancer treatment. That’s why it’s important to know about these so you can let your oncologist know.

Hiccups. Some patients experience non-stop hiccups after a chemotherapy infusion. This strange side effect is usually caused by dexamethasone (a steroid) given to help prevent nausea and vomiting. Hiccups may also be caused by Cisplatin, a platinum-based chemotherapy drug used most often to treat metastatic ovarian, bladder and testicular cancer.

1st Bite Syndrome. This unusual side effect is associated with the platinum-based chemotherapy drug called Oxaliplatin. 1st bite syndrome is jaw spasm that occurs when a patient takes their first bite of food after infusion. I can personally attest to this one – it was intense, but resolved within about a minute, and I was able to eat the rest of my meal, and it happened at the first meal after every infusion.

First Bite

Nail Changes. Fingernails seem to be affected more than toenails. The nails get weak and fall off (most common with Taxol and Taxotere). Other nail problems include peeling off in layers, development of either horizontal or vertical lines in your nails or a change in the shape of your nail, so that it has a concave appearance, like a spoon. Rarely, a patient may lose their toenails.

Partial Hair Loss. Patients getting radiation for brain tumors or head and neck cancer may experience partial hair loss. Most hair loss occurs where the radiation is beam, but some patients lose hair where the radiation beam exists. Our WhatNext patient leader experienced this — he lost the hair on each side of his head, leaving with hair on the top of his head, like a Mohawk.

Pink Eye. You may remember “pink eye” from your childhood days. Pink eye is the common name for conjunctivitis — an inflammation of the conjunctiva (the clear, thin membrane that covers the white of the eye). Some chemotherapy drugs (capecitabine, carmustine, epirubicin, methotrexate, and oprevelkin) may cause pink eye.

Flatulence. Flatulence is the “fancy” word for gas. And yes, it can be caused by chemotherapy. Chemo may change the speed that food passes through our intestines (called motility). Food may speed up (causing diarrhea) or slow down (causing constipation). Chemo also affects the good bacteria found in our gut — killing off the good bacteria may cause cramping and the production of gas.

Hand-Foot Syndrome. Yes, this one is real — almost sounds like “hoof-and-mouth disease.” But hand-foot syndrome (palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia) is an uncomfortable side effect of some cancer treatments. Symptoms include redness, swelling, and pain on the palms of the hands and/or the soles of the feet. Patients may develop blisters too, making walking extremely painful. Xeloda, an oral chemo used for colorectal, anal, breast and other cancers is notorious for this side effect.

Nose Bleed. Nose bleeds may occur if our platelet counts are low. A targeted therapy, Avastin, used in many types of metastatic cancer, can also cause nose bleeds.

Acne. Some targeted therapies cause a skin rash that may be severe. It looks just like acne and affects the scalp, face, neck, chest, and upper back. It is usually worse at the beginning of treatment. When treatment ends, our skin heals and recovers within 4-to-6 weeks.

Vaginal Stenosis. Vaginal stenosis frequently causes painful intercourse and may prevent a woman from being able to have a pelvic exam. Vaginal stenosis is caused by pelvic radiation to treat cervical, ovarian, uterine, rectal and anal cancers.

Personality Change. When our loved ones experience a personality or mood change, don’t automatically blame it on the patient — that they are moody or depressed just because they have cancer. Steroids given before chemotherapy to help prevent side effects can change a patient’s personality, even causing anger and lashing out at their caregiver. Rarely, chemo may cause depression, psychosis or mania. If these symptoms appear suddenly and are uncharacteristic, be sure to talk to your oncologist.

Low Blood Pressure. Hypotension is the medical name for low blood pressure. We don’t normally think about low blood pressure as being a problem. However, if it drops too low, this condition may cause serious problems like fainting. Chemotherapy and biologic drugs that can cause low blood pressure include rituximab, paclitaxel, bleomycin and interleukin.

Darkening of Skin. Also called hyperpigmentation, this weird side effect may appear 2-to-3 weeks after the start of chemotherapy. Usually, a patient’s skin returns to normal about three months after treatment.

Ringing in the Ears. Tinnitus, the medical term for abnormal sounds in the ear, includes sounds like roaring, hissing, or humming too. Patients complain that this disturbs their sleep. Platinum-based chemotherapy drugs including cisplatin and carboplatin are the usual culprits of this unusual side effect. Tell your health care provider if you experience ringing in your ears.

Hand Foot Syndrome

The Bottom Line …

Never assume that a new medical issue that crops up isn’t cancer-related. Cancer treatment affects our entire body. Chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy and radiotherapy may cause serious adverse events. Although rare, patients can experience heart-related side effects including weakening of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), heart rhythm problems (arrhythmia), heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and blood clots.

Go to the ER if you experience chest pain, palpitations, swollen feet, ankles or legs, intense leg pain, shortness of breath, sweating/nausea/vomiting or irregular heartbeats/fluttering. Don’t take a chance. Be sure to tell the ER that you are in active treatment for cancer and the treatment you are receiving.

Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to serious treatment-related side effects. 

What oddball or weird side effects have you experienced? List them in the comments below.

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