Help your child cope with side effects of cancer treatment
Every child's experience of treatment is different. For some, it's fairly smooth sailing while for others, the side effects can be really tough. Remember that most side effects are only temporary and you should get plenty of help to reduce or control them.
Why do side effects happen?
Whatever type of treatment your child is having, the main aim will be to rid their body of cancer. However, although treatments target cancer cells, they can affect other healthy cells that divide and reproduce quickly. These can include cells found in the stomach, skin, mouth, hair and bone marrow.
What are the most common side effects?
It depends on the type of treatment but common side effects include hair loss, increased risk of infection, changes to your child’s weight, tiredness, problems with concentration and thinking, and issues with eating and digestion.
Not every child or young person will experience all the side effects listed – and some people may not experience any at all. If your child doesn’t experience the side effects, this doesn’t mean that their treatment isn’t working.
Chemotherapy or radiotherapy near your child’s stomach may make them vomit or feel sick. Your specialist will be able to prescribe anti-sickness drugs (also called anti-emetic drugs) to reduce this side effect.
The chemotherapy drugs may affect how your child’s bowel works leading to constipation or diarrhoea. This can be helped by laxatives or anti-diarrhoea drugs.
Your child may feel very tired during their chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment. This can last for a number of months afterwards, even when they have finished treatment. They may need to rest more often and cut back on activities.
Chemotherapy drugs can cause a sore mouth or mouth ulcers. If your child had radiotherapy to their head or neck, their mouth may become dry and dental decay may occur more rapidly. These problems should disappear after they finish treatment, but in the meantime, it is important for your child to look after their mouth.
Their teeth should be cleaned regularly but gently, and schedule frequent dental check-ups – your dentist could be a great source of information and support in dealing with mouth and dental issues. Your specialist or dentist will be able to prescribe some fluoride tablets or fluoride mouthwash.
Your child might not feel like eating during their treatment, or their eating habits could change. They may also experience a bitter taste in their mouth. It is really important to maintain their weight and for them to drink plenty of fluids to keep well during their treatment.
Be flexible – allow them to eat when they feel hungry, rather than at set mealtimes. If your child is having problems with eating, ask if you can speak to the hospital dietitian about how your child can get the nutrition and calories they need.
Taking steroids may make your child feel hungrier, and they might find it difficult to maintain their former weight. Their appetite will go back to normal once they stop taking the steroids, but some people need to watch their diet and exercise levels to lose the extra weight.
Hair loss usually happens two to three weeks after the first course of chemotherapy. It doesn’t usually fall out all at once. Some people may lose all their hair, others may find it gets thinner or falls out in patches. Your child’s hair will begin to grow back once their treatment has stopped.
Radiotherapy can cause hair loss in your child’s treatment area. Depending on the type of radiotherapy they have, this may grow back several months after treatment ends.
Children deal with this differently – some may become self-conscious while others take it in their stride. If they’re going to school, it’s important the school is taking action to educate your child’s classmates about the effects of cancer to encourage empathy and understanding.
Encourage the school to order our free Cancer and school life pack which includes a DVD and lesson plan designed to help teachers and students to support your child.
Chemotherapy can make your child’s skin very sensitive to the sun and chemicals such as the chlorine in swimming pools. Your child’s skin may develop a rash or change colour. Talk to your specialist if you are concerned.
If your child is having external radiotherapy, they may develop a skin reaction, like sunburn. If this is going to happen, it usually begins about ten days after treatment. You may notice your child’s skin changes colour or becomes itchy. Let your specialist know if you notice any soreness or colour change in the treatment area.
The skin in your child’s treatment area will be very sensitive and will need to be protected from the sun and cold winds. For at least the first year after your child finishes radiotherapy, they will need to cover the treated area of their skin if they go out in strong sunshine.
Some chemotherapy drugs may permanently affect your child’s ability to have children in the future. However, this is not true for every chemotherapy drug. If your child’s ovaries or testicles are within their radiotherapy treatment area, this may affect their ability to have children later in life.
It is important to talk to your specialist about the options available to them before beginning treatment.
If your child is old enough, they might want to look at our information for teenagers and young adults about fertility and how it can be affected by treatment.
Where can I turn to for more help?
If your child is having problems because of their treatment, always ask the team at the hospital for help. While the side effects of cancer treatment can be worrying and difficult to deal with, it is important to remember that most of them are only short-term and will gradually disappear once your child’s treatment is complete.
Your child’s medical team may give them medication before the side effects make themselves felt. But if your child is struggling with side effects at any point, don’t hesitate to tell their doctor or nurse right away so they can respond quickly.
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