Leukemia is a form of cancer that affects blood cells. Since blood cells travel throughout the body to every tissue, this type of cancer can have a significant effect on your health.
Leukemia treatment focuses on destroying the cancer cells that are taking over the normal function of your blood cells. Once cancer cells are destroyed, blood cells are usually replenished with a bone marrow transplant.
Most of the treatments for leukemia — including chemotherapy and radiation — aren’t choosy when it comes to the cells they destroy. These medications target cells that grow quickly, like cancer cells. But they can also destroy some healthy cells, too.
Find out what side effects you can expect from leukemia treatment, why they occur, and how to relieve them.
As your leukemia treatment begins to work, cancer cells begin to die off. Unfortunately, other cells can be destroyed or damaged too, along with the cancer cells.
This includes red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body, white blood cells that help fight infections, and the platelets that help to clot your blood.
A decrease in the number of blood cells can produce a number of side effects like:
- tiredness or weakness from anemia as red blood cells drop
- increased infection risk with low white blood cells counts
- easy bruising or bleeding caused by low platelet levels
How a drop in blood cell count is treated
In most cases, a drop in blood cells are treated with transfusions of cells from a donor with the same blood type. Your doctor may also recommend certain precautions including:
- neutropenic precautions to prevent infection with low white cell counts
- iron supplements or diet changes for low red blood cell counts and anemia
- medications that can help stimulate new blood cell production
- avoiding contact sports or other high-risk activities that could make bleeding and bruising more dangerous
Leukemia treatments may also affect the gastrointestinal system. This is because chemotherapy and radiation can cause damage to the lining of your stomach and other parts of the digestive tract. Side effects include:
- changes in taste or smell
- changes in appetite
- abdominal pain
Managing the gastrointestinal effects of leukemia treatment
Inflammation can occur after chemotherapy and radiation. An expected occurrence as cells are destroyed, this inflammation usually targets more delicate tissues, like those in the mouth and other mucous membranes. This can cause conditions like mucositis in the mouth and parotitis in the salivary glands.
Symptoms of these conditions are:
- mouth pain
- jaw pain
- dry mouth
Treating oral inflammation and infections
Inflammation in the mouth or other mucus membranes usually occurs at the start of leukemia treatment and fades in the first few weeks. Keeping your mouth clean and avoiding mouthwashes that contain alcohol can help reduce discomfort.
Your doctor may also recommend antibiotics or antifungal drugs if the inflammation leads to an infection.
Like other cells, skin and hair cells can be damaged or destroyed by cancer treatments. Hair loss — including the hair on your eyebrows and eyelashes — usually begins in the first few weeks of chemotherapy but becomes more noticeable after a month or so.
Hair loss has been reported as one of the most common short-term side effects of cancer treatment. Results from a national study found that hair loss affects about 78 percent of the patients who received chemotherapy for leukemia.
What to do about hair loss and skin issues
If you’re experiencing hair loss or skin problems after chemotherapy, you can try:
- keeping your head covered
- protect your skin and scalp form the sun
- only use mild soaps and lotions
- if you’d like to wear a wig, check to see if your insurance company will cover it
Fighting cancer can be difficult to handle emotionally. The impact a cancer battle has on your mental and emotional health can be just as significant as the physical effects.
From stress to changes in your body image and appearance, it can be difficult to manage the trials that your diagnosis, treatment, and recovery will put you through. Your fertility and sexual health may be affected, too, and some cancer treatments may even result in early menopause.
Managing emotional and physical aspects of leukemia treatment
Hormonal and emotional changes can be caused in part by the medications used to treat cancer, but also by the stress the disease causes.
Be sure to talk with your doctor about ways to preserve your fertility — and your emotional and mental health. They can recommend other treatment options that may have fewer side effects.
They can also help you establish a social network to support your mental and emotional needs throughout your cancer journey.
In one 2018 study, about one-third of people treated for leukemia reported long-term side effects of treatment.
Like short-term effects, the most common long-term fallout of leukemia treatment was hair loss and fatigue. But as cells in your body are destroyed, other long-term effects could appear over time, including:
- fertility problems
- heart and lung problems
- thyroid problems
- bone density issues like osteoporosis
- increased infection risks
- confusion or memory problems
Long-term side effects dependent on certain factors
Long-term effects of leukemia treatment are generally dependent on a number of factors like:
- the type of treatment you had
- how old you were when you had treatment
- how long treatment lasted
- what doses of medication you were given
Side effects are reactions that occur with medication or treatment. In many cases, there are certain side effects that are expected with particular medications, and not all of these are bad.
When side effects cause serious health concerns, they’re usually referred to as adverse events.
Even though some side effects are expected (and sometimes even anticipated) medications affect everyone in different ways. Some factors that can impact the side effects you experience include:
- how your body absorbs the medication
- other medications, vitamins, or supplements you’re taking
Discuss side effects with your doctor before treatment
There are several types of leukemia, and multiple medications and treatments that can be used for each one.
Along with the wide range of treatment options, there are also many ways that each one can affect each person individually. You may have different side effects than someone with the same diagnosis and treatment plan.
When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you. This discussion should include an outline of what to expect from the treatment, along with potential side effects.
Make a list of all the things you wish to discuss with your doctor prior to treatment. Be sure to include the following topics:
- how treatment will progress
- what side expects to expect and how to prevent or alleviate them
- how much help you’ll need during and after treatment
- how to preserve your fertility
- what additional support you can get from your community or health insurance provider
- ways to increase your comfort and promote well-being during your treatment
- leukemia support groups you can join
Leukemia isn’t curable, but it can be managed with a number of treatments. How your leukemia is treated is a decision that will be made between you and your doctor.
Regardless of what treatments are used, these discussions should also touch on what to expect in terms of side effects, which can vary from person to person.
Side effects like hair loss, fatigue, and nausea are common. Remember, your healthcare team is there to support you through your treatment. They can help you manage any side effects you may be having, so don’t hesitate to discuss any symptoms you may be feeling.