Embarrassing Symptoms And Side Effects of Cancer And Treatments

by Jane Ashley

We’ve all learned firsthand that some of our symptoms and side effects are embarrassing. Sometimes, we don’t tell our doctors because we’re just too embarrassed.

Always Tell Your Doctor The Truth

There’s an old saying, “Always tell the truth to your doctors and your lawyer.” The reason is simple — they can’t help us if we hedge on the truth. Hiding our symptoms won’t make what’s wrong with us go away. As we have already learned, cancer doesn’t pick convenient locations.

Trust me when I tell you, “Our doctors have heard it all.”

What are some symptoms we may avoid sharing with our doctor?

We especially seem to be hesitant to talk about our private parts, loss of control of bodily functions, alcohol consumption, pain medication consumption, and memory loss. What else don’t we want to talk about?

Your Doctor Has Heard It All

Balance or falling. Falling, related to losing our sense of balance, is not uncommon among cancer patients. It’s a known fact that chemo adversely affects balance. Falling could be related to chemotherapy-induced neuropathy. Our balance problem might be caused by a small tumor that has metastasized in our brain.

Blood in your stools. Don’t put off seeing a gastroenterologist or colorectal surgeon if you have persistent blood in your stools. The blood may be red, maroon, or even black. It could be something simple like hemorrhoids, but it could be a symptom of colorectal cancer. Blood in your stools is not a symptom that you should dismiss. It might be embarrassing to talk about, or you might be scared of the pain caused by a digital rectal exam. But don’t take a chance. I was diagnosed with Stage IV rectal cancer, and my only symptom was rectal bleeding. My primary care physician said it was “probably hemorrhoids.” Probably is not good enough when one of the other potential diagnoses could be cancer. If you’re in active cancer treatment, blood in your stools could be due to low platelet counts or due to radiation for prostate cancer. Patients on immunotherapy can experience rectal bleeding from immune-mediated colitis. Always call your oncology team if you experience rectal bleeding during treatment.

Constipation. The causes are diverse. Constipation can be attributed to lack of exercise, not drinking enough water, or a diet low in fiber. Prescription pain medications cause constipation too. Sometimes a tumor in the lower colon or rectum may block your stool from passing. Chronic constipation can be a symptom of colorectal cancer. During chemo, anti-nausea medicine may sometimes cause constipation.
Diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea is a symptom of many diseases, from irritable bowel syndrome to colorectal cancer and everything in between. If you are experiencing on-going diarrhea for 10+ days, it’s time to see your doctor. Chemotherapy and pelvic radiation both cause diarrhea, which can sometimes be life-threatening — be sure to call your oncology team if you experience persistent diarrhea, with or without bleeding.
Discharge from our breasts. Both men and women may experience a discharge from their breasts, which could be a symptom of a hormonal imbalance or a symptom of cancer.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy Journal Book

Itchy anus. A persistent, itchy bum may be a symptom of certain skin conditions, diabetes, a sexually-transmitted infection, a yeast infection, an autoimmune disease, or anal cancer. Don’t be embarrassed. Your doctor has seen or heard it all.

Sexual dysfunction. Problems in the bedroom shouldn’t be dismissed. They can happen to men and women. Men who experience erectile dysfunction are twice as likely to have a heart attack or a stroke — erectile dysfunction may be a symptom of diabetes too. Pelvic radiation may be the cause of erectile dysfunction. It’s important to talk to your medical team to ensure that you haven’t developed a new medical condition during cancer treatment.

Women who experience pain during intercourse should see the gynecologist – pain may be a sign of ovarian cysts, cervical cancer, or a simple infection. Women who have pelvic radiation for ovarian, cervical, rectal, or anal cancer can develop vaginal stenosis (shortening and narrowing of the vagina), making intercourse painful or impossible. Be sure to tell your medical team; pelvic floor physical therapy can help restore your ability to have intercourse without pain.

Tremors. Tremors can be embarrassing if they happen at work or a family event or church. Don’t dismiss a tremor as just nerves. They can be a symptom of MS, Parkinson’s, a stroke, kidney or liver failure, or caused by a medication. If you’re in active treatment for cancer, be sure to tell your oncologist if you begin to have tremors — tremors may be a result of chemotherapy or a symptom that your cancer has spread to your brain or spinal cord.

Urinary incontinence, urgency, or frequency. These symptoms could be simply one of the signs of aging. In women, these problems can be caused by weak pelvic floor muscles, childbirth injuries, or menopause. In men, urinary problems may result from prostate enlargement. Other causes may be from undiagnosed diabetes, a urinary tract infection, or pelvic radiation to treat rectal, prostate, or ovarian cancer. 


Why are we reluctant to be honest with our medical team?

Every patient’s reason seems logical to them, but we must tell our medical team the truth.

• Many of us were raised in an era when we didn’t talk about pee or poop or sex. Regardless of when and how we were raised, we don’t like to talk about “forbidden” bodily topics or discharges that are gross or smelly.
• We might also be reluctant to share symptoms because money is tight, and we’re afraid that we can’t afford the testing or treatment.
• We might be afraid that our symptom is suggestive of another cancer, and we’re too afraid to find out.
• We’ve had the symptom for months and have been ignoring it, hoping that it will go away. And now, we realize that it’s serious, and we embarrassed about not reporting it sooner.

The Bottom Line

We should always be honest with our medical team. A weird bodily event, however embarrassing, might be related to your treatment or might be suggestive of progression of your cancer. If it’s related to your treatment, your team may be able to adjust your dosage or switch medications to lessen the side effect. If your embarrassing symptom is a sign of progression, your doctor needs to know to help you.
No matter how embarrassing or how weird, always tell your doctor the truth.

Related Articles About Cancer Issues

 The Hidden Side Effects of Radiation

14 Weird Side Effects of Cancer and Treatments

Dealing With Some of the Toughest Side Effects of Cancer

5 Side Effects of Head and Neck Cancer You Must Know About

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