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Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Sometimes, one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with cancer is coping with the side effects of treatment. There are two principal types of cancer treatment in conventional use today: chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Each poses unique challenges.

Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is, as its name suggests, the chemical treatment of cancer and other conditions. The medications used in chemotherapy are very powerful and can greatly help some people. However, the use of chemotherapy requires a careful consideration of whether its potential effects on the disease outweigh its potential disruption to health. Chemotherapy must be given at precisely the right time in the course of a disease to maximize benefits and minimize side effects. Where and how chemotherapy is given varies, depending on which medications are used and on the individual's condition. The treatment can be performed in a hospital, an outpatient clinic, a doctor's office, or even at home. The medications may be given in a single dose each day, continuously over several days, once a week, or once a month. A course of treatment can last from several weeks to several years, and may be repeated if necessary. If you need to undergo chemotherapy, herbal treatment may be helpful for either making chemotherapy more effective or reducing its side effects. This should not be surprising, since a large number of chemotherapy medications are of herbal origin, including etoposide (Etopophos, Toposar, VePesid), paclitaxel (Taxol) , vinblastine (Velban), vincristine (Oncovin, Vincasar, Vinerex) , and vinorelbine (Navelbine). Below you can find herb recommendations for several of the more commonly used chemotherapy treatments. These recommendations are additions to, rather than replacements for, standard chemotherapy medications. No herbal treatment can replace chemotherapy that is medically required. Always use herbs in close cooperation with a physician. Unless otherwise noted, these herbs should be taken at the same time as chemotherapy treatments.

Nausea is a common chemotherapy side effect for which doctors often prescribe any of several antinausea agents, such as granisetron (Kytril) and ondansetron (Zofran). Drinking a cup of licorice tea once or twice daily, between meals, can make these medications more effective. Other herbal agents that can help fight chemotherapy induced nausea are astragalus, ginger, and the traditional Chinese herbal formula Shi Qua Da Bu Tang (also known as All-Inclusive Great Tonifying Decoction). Make astragalus tea using 1 ounce (30 grams) of loose tea in 3 cups of water and take 1 cup three times daily. Take ginger in the form of hexanol extract, following the label directions. Use these remedies after consulting with your doctor and an herbal practitioner. A medication called Iscador, made from the herb mistletoe, has been approved for sale in the United States. Iscador is injected into the abdomen once a day. It has been used in Europe since the 1960s and in Asia for even longer. Some experts believe that the side effects of Iscador are not nearly as bad as those of more traditional chemotherapy treatments.

Cisplatin and carboplatin Cisplatin (Platinol) and carboplatin (Paraplatin) are used to treat cancers of the bladder, bone, cervix, endometrium, and lung. Although these medications can affect cancer cells and healthy cells alike, they are absorbed only by cells that are preparing to make multiple copies of themselves. Since most healthy cells produce only a single replacement when they divide, these medications do more damage to cancer cells than to healthy cells. Once the medication is absorbed, it "glues" strands of DNA together, so that cells cannot make the proteins they need to function and reproduce. Possible side effects include appetite loss, nausea and vomiting, kidney damage, hearing loss, and suppression of red and white blood cell production. After several treatments with cisplatin, virtually all people have mild kidney damage, causing a deficiency of magnesium. As a result, mineral supplements are important for people undergoing chemotherapy with this medication. Beneficial herbs

Cat's claw tincture. Take the dose recommended on the label in 1/2 cup water with 1 tsp lemon juice. Normalizes white blood cell counts. Do not use cat's claw if you have to take insulin for diabetes. Do not use it if you are pregnant or nursing. Do not give it to a child under age six. Quercetin tablets. Take 125-250 mg 3 times daily, between meals. Increases tumor-killing capacity of cisplatin while reducing its side effects. Do not use quercetin if you are taking cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimunne) or nifedipine (Adalat, Procardia).

Cyclophosphamide

Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Neosar) is used for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma, sarcoma, and cancers of the breast, cervix, lung, and ovary. It is also used to treat lupus. It keeps tumor cells from multiplying and works best when given with other chemotherapy medications. Cyclophosphamide has no effect on cancer until it is activated by the liver, which means that it is necessary to have a healthy liver to benefit from the medication. The liver changes this medication into a chemical that is harmless to normal cells but destructive to tumor cells. Possible side effects include nausea and vomiting, suppression of red and white blood cell production, bladder and lung damage, infertility, and the development of secondary cancers. Beneficial herbs

Alfalfa capsules. Take 1,000-2.000 mg daily. Reverses immune suppression in laboratory studies. Do not use alfalfa in any form if cyclophosphamide is being used to treat a condition, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, in which immune suppression is desirable. Aloe juice. Take 1/4 cup 2-3 times daily. Enhances immune resistance. Increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy that combines 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) with cyclophosphamide. Do not take aloe vera juice internally if you have diarrhea. Ashwaganda capsules. Take 1,000-2,000 mg twice daily. Increases red and white blood cell counts. Astragalus fluidextract. Take 1-4 tsp (4-16 ml) 3 times daily. Reverses immune suppression. Do not use astragalus if you have a fever or a skin infection. Begin with the lowest dosage and, as long as no fever develops, move up to the highest dosage over a period of four days. Cat's claw tincture. Take the dose recommended on the label in 1/2 cup water with 1 tsp lemon juice. Normalizes white blood cell counts. Do not use cat's claw if you have to take insulin for diabetes Do not use it if you are pregnant or nursing. Do not give it to a child under age six. Polysaccharide kureha (PSK) tablets. Take 6,000 mg daily. Start 1-2 weeks before treatment. Reduces immune suppression. Reishi tablets. Take 3 gm 3 times daily. Increases counts of red and white blood cells. Scutellaria fluidextract. Take 1/4 - 1/2 tsp (1-2 ml) 3 times daily. Start 1-2 weeks before treatment. Reduces immune-system damage. Do not use scutellaria if you have diarrhea. Turmeric curcumin tablets. Take 250-500 mg twice daily, between meals. Helps prevent damage to lung tissue. What else you can do

Take 400 to 800 international units of vitamin E daily. Vitamin E prevents cyclophosphamide from encouraging the formation of tissue-damaging free radicals, especially in the lungs and the lining of the mouth. Take 150 micrograms of selenium daily before and during chemotherapy with cyclophosphamide. Selenium reduces the toxicity of the medication without reducing its effectiveness. Take one or two tablets of Lactobacillus, the "friendly" bacteria that aids digestion, with food daily. Although this supplement has not been proved to have a positive effect on cancer by itself, it increases survival time and chances for remission when given with cyclophosphamide, especially for leukemia. If mouth ulcers are a major problem during cyclophosphamide treatment, consider eliminating barley, corn, wheat, and rye products from your diet. These grains contain proteins that can cause ulceration of the mouth, and these proteins pass into the body more readily if you are undergoing chemotherapy.

Doxorubicin Doxorubicin (Adriamycin, Doxil, Rubex) is used to treat acute leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, and cancers of bone, breast, cervix, endometrium, lung, ovary, and prostate. This medication tears apart strands of DNA in cells that are preparing to multiply. It affects both cancer cells and healthy cells that frequently reproduce, such as the bone cells that create blood cells. Possible side effects include nausea and vomiting, toxic effects on the heart, infertility, low white blood cell counts, and colon and liver damage. Beneficial herbs

Jambul seeds. Use as desired in cooking daily. Prevents heart and liver damage. Milk thistle silymarin gel-caps. Take 120 mg 3 times daily. Prevents liver damage. Milk thistle can cause mild diarrhea. Schisandra capsules. Take 100 mg 3 times daily. Protects heart muscle. Do not use schisandra if you have gallstones or an obstruction of the bile duct. Do not use it if you are pregnant. What else you can do

Take 400 to 800 international units of vitamin E daily starting the week before chemotherapy begins. Vitamin E deficiency is associated with increased heart damage from doxorubicin. Take 2,000 to 6,000 milligrams of vitamin B3 (niacin) daily the week before treatment begins. Niacin reduces doxorubicin's effects on the heart without reducing its effectiveness. Take 150 micrograms of selenium daily before and during chemotherapy with doxorubicin. Selenium reduces the medication's toxic effects on the heart.

Take 500 milligrams of L-carnitine, which protects the heart, three times a day during and after chemotherapy. In addition to L-carnitine, take 100 to 300 milligrams of CoQ10, which allows heart cells to produce more energy during doxorubicin treatment.

S-fluorouracil (S-FU) This medication is used to treat cancers of the bladder, breast, colorectal, endometrium, ovary, and stomach. It is also used to treat psoriasis. It keeps cancer cells from dividing by making it impossible for their DNA to unwind before cell reproduction. When used in topical cream form, its side effects can include pain, itching, rash, and ulceration. When administered by injection, it can cause loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and low white blood cell counts. Beneficial herbs

Coptis apply as a cold compress 2-3 times daily. Increases the skin's permeability to topical 5-FU. Lentinan intramuscular injection, given by health-care provider. Start 1-2 weeks before treatment. Prevents immune-system damage. What else you can do

Take 400 to 800 international units of vitamin E and 100 micrograms of vitamin K daily. Used together with 5-FU, these two vitamins greatly increase the anticancer effects of the medication without causing additional side effects. However, they can make the blood less able to clot. Be sure to inform your doctor if you are taking these vitamins, especially if surgery is required.

Methotrexate This medication is used to treat cancers of the bone, as well as some cases of Crohn's disease, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis. It acts by depriving rapidly dividing cells of the B vitamin folic acid. Although methotrexate affects all dividing cells, it does more damage to cancer cells than to healthy cells, which divide at a slower rate. Possible side effects include anemia, immune suppression, and loss of fertility. Beneficial herbs

Astragalus tincture. Take 1-4 tsp (4-16 ml) in 1/4 - 1/2 cup and water 3 times daily. Panax ginseng tincture. Take 1-4 tsp (4-16 ml) in 1/4 - 1/2 cup water 3 times daily. A combination that has extended the lives of people with lung cancer treated with methotrexate.

With both astragalus and ginseng, begin with the lowest dosage. If no fever develops, increase to the highest dosage over a period of four days. What else you can do

Take 400 to 800 international units of vitamin E daily. This vitamin helps prevent medication-induced damage to the bone marrow and intestinal lining.

Mitomycin Mitomycin (Mutamycin) is used to treat cancers of the bladder, breast, cervix, colon, rectum, and stomach. It keeps cancer cells from making copies of themselves and makes them much more susceptible to radiation treatment. Mitomycin works best in tissues that are short on oxygen, such as tumors that have not yet developed their own blood supplies. Possible side effects include fever, hair loss, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, lung and kidney damage, and suppression of white and red blood cell production. Beneficial herbs

Cat's claw tincture. Take the dose recommended on the label in 1/2 cup water with 1 tsp lemon juice. Normalizes white blood cell counts. Do not use cars claw if you have to take insulin for diabetes. Do not use it if you are pregnant or nursing. Do not give it to a child under age six. Panax ginseng tincture. Take as directed on the label. Makes cancer cells absorb mitomycin more rapidly.

Steroid medications This family of medications includes cortisone, dexamethasone, hydrocortisone, methylprednisone, prednisone, and prednisolone. These medications control the inflammation caused by various forms of cancer as well as by a number of other disorders, including allergies, asthma, arthritis, eczema, eye inflammation, psoriasis, and kidney disease. They boost cell function by making cells more receptive to hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. Possible side effects include weight gain, high blood pressure, acne, osteoporosis, growth of facial hair in women, cataracts, glaucoma, menstrual irregularity, irritability, insomnia, increased vulnerability to infection, and psychosis. Beneficial herbs

Licorice glycyrrhizin tablets. Take 200-800 mg daily, depending on the severity of symptoms. Use for 6 weeks, then take a 2-week break. Do not substitute deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL). Contains compounds that increase the staying power of cortisol. Consume potassium-rich foods such as bananas or citrus juices, or take a potassium

supplement daily when taking this herb. Do not use licorice if you have glaucoma, high blood pressure, or an estrogen sensitive disorder such as breast cancer, endometriosis, or fibrocystic breasts. Wild angelica - Angelica dahurica tea (loose), prepared by steeping 1 tsp (2 gm) in 1 cup water. Take 1 cup 2-3 times daily, between meals. Reduces risk of fractures during steroid treatment. Do not use wild angelica if you are pregnant. What else you can do

Avoid salt and salty foods while using any of these medications. Due to changes in the body's breakdown of cortisol, treatment with steroids causes the body to retain both sodium and fluid. This can cause bloating, swelling, and high blood pressure.

Thiotepa This medication is used to treat bladder and ovarian cancer if other kinds of chemotherapy have failed. It acts by cross linking strands of DNA in dividing cells, which prevents the cells from reproducing, and it affects more cancer cells than healthy cells. Thiotepa can cause severe inflammation of the mucous membranes, low white blood cell counts about two weeks after use, and low red blood cell counts about three weeks after use. Beneficial herbs

Cat's claw tablets. Take Take 500-1,000 mg daily. Normalizes white blood cell counts. Do not use cat's claw if you have to take insulin for diabetes. Do not use it if you are pregnant or nursing Do not give it to a child under age six. Green tea - tea bag, prepared with 1 cup water. Drink 2-3 cups daily. Do not use decaffeinated tea. To avoid dilution, do not use within 1 hour of taking other oral medications. Contains caffeine, which increases the cancer-fighting effect of thiotepa. What else you can do

Ukrain is a unique combination of thiotepa with a chemical derived from the herb greater celandine. It promotes the death of cancer cells, but protects the DNA of healthy, dividing cells throughout the body, especially in the bone marrow where both white and red blood cells are formed.

Vincristine This medication, combined with steroid treatment, is the medical treatment of choice for childhood leukemia. It is also used to treat Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's

lymphoma. It acts by stopping the unraveling of DNA that is necessary for the division of cells. Since cancer cells divide and multiply at a faster rate than healthy cells do, they are more affected by the medication. Possible side effects include hair loss (almost always reversible when therapy ends), loss of motor control due to nerve damage, severe constipation, and anemia. Beneficial herbs

Astragalus tincture. Take 1-4 tsp (4-16 ml) in 1/4 - 1/2 cup water 3 times daily. Panax ginseng tincture. Take 1-4 tsp (4-16 ml) in 1/4 - 1/2 cup water 3 times daily. Extends life in people with lung cancer treated with vincristine. With both astragalus and ginseng, begin with the lowest dosage. If no fever develops, increase to the highest dosage over a period of four days. What else you can do

Take 400 to 800 international units of vitamin E daily. This vitamin reduces vincristine's toxic effect on the nervous system.

Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy is part of conventional medicine's standard arsenal against cancer. It kills cells by promoting the formation of toxic free radicals, byproducts of the use of oxygen in the body. The effects of radiation therapy are most pronounced in cells that are rapidly reproducing, such as cancer cells. The idea behind using this treatment is that more cancer cells than healthy cells are killed by the radiation. Radiation can help eradicate cancers of the oral and nasal cavities, tongue, and lips; small-cell lung cancer; some kinds of melanoma; early Hodgkin's disease; and some early forms of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It is not usually helpful in treating bladder cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer (other than small-cell lung cancer), or connective tissue sarcomas. Doctors try to aim radiation precisely at the cancer itself. Even so, it is impossible to not affect healthy cells. Radiation therapy inevitably causes a number of side effects, including fatigue, nausea, headaches, loss of appetite, diarrhea, hair loss, and dry mouth or eyes. Different people experience different effects, depending on what part of the body is involved and how much radiation they receive. The side effects of radiation therapy may or may not be permanent, depending on the dose and the part of the body involved. Unless directed by a physician to do otherwise, you should start herbal therapies after the last radiation treatment, so as to avoid counteracting the radiation's effects. Beneficial herbs

Chaparral extract. Take as directed on the label. Helps to protect against harmful radiation. Do not use chaparral on a regular basis, and do not take it daily for longer than one week. Long-term use may be harmful to the liver Panax ginseng tincture. Take as directed on the label. Protects the digestive tract from radiation injury. Green tea catechin extract. Take 240 mg 3 times daily. Protects the body from side effects of gamma radiation, including thyroid cancer. Mistletoe Loranthus or mulberry mistletoe. Use only under professional supervision. Reduces risk of low white blood cell count. Prolongs survival time. Pollen micronized in capsules. Take 3,000-4,000 mg daily. Protects liver from antioxidant depletion. Polysaccharide kureha (PSK) tablets. Take 6,000 mg daily. Relieves pain, poor appetite, fatigue, weakness, and dry mouth and throat. Slippery elm powder. Take 1-2 tsp in 1 cup cold water as often as desired. Relieves dry mouth and sore throat. Safe to use during treatment. Snow fungus or yin mi pian tablets. Take 6-12 daily before radiation for breast or uterine cancer. Increases resistance to side effects. What else you can do

Before taking radiation treatment for any kind of cancer, ask your physician for a frank assessment of the potential benefits and risks of radiation therapy for your type of cancer. Eat buckwheat, which is high in rutin, a bioflavonoid that protects against radiation. Drink plenty of steam-distilled water. Lactose intolerance, which causes bloating, flatulence, and heartburn after consumption of dairy products, is a common complication of radiation therapy. Avoiding dairy products or taking a lactase enzyme supplement, such as Lactaid, can help. Dietary supplementation during radiation therapy requires careful consideration. Since radiation therapy depletes the body's stores of beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, it would seem natural to take supplements during radiation treatment. However, there is some evidence that the greater the body's stores of these free radical scavenging vitamins (and of the mineral selenium) during treatment, the larger the tumor will be after treatment. On the other hand, there is considerable laboratory evidence that supplemental melatonin protects the whole body from side effects of radiation, and that vitamin A supplements may prevent lung damage. Do not take vitamin or mineral supplements during radiation treatment except on an oncologist's advice. Lymphedema is a swelling of the tissues that may follow radiation therapy.
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