Cancer Treatment Side Effects FAQ
As a mum or birthing parent with cancer you are likely to have a number of questions about the treatment you will have. Here we try to answer some of the most common ones...
Will my treatment hurt my baby / children?
Your treatment plan will be created to prioritise the health and wellbeing of both you and your baby. What kind of treatment you can have will depend on the type of cancer and stage of pregnancy; all viable options will be considered by your specialist team.
There are some treatments that can have lasting effects on your body and may impact your children and family at home. In these cases you may be required to isolate before/after in order to minimise these effects. For example: when receiving radioiodine treatment for thyroid cancer, you will need to isolate from family after treatment for their protection. Another scenario would be when receiving chemotherapy, if another member of the family is unwell with a contagious illness, you may be recommended to stay separate to reduce the risk of becoming infected yourself.
What kind of cancer treatment can I have while pregnant?
This will depend on the type of cancer you have and when in your pregnancy you have been diagnosed and any decision about treatment will be made with you.
Surgery may be an option at all stages of pregnancy, depending on the location of the cancer.
Chemotherapy may be offered as a treatment during your pregnancy but is not usually given during the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy (first trimester) when the baby is in a very early stage of development. After week 12 of the pregnancy (the second and third trimesters), some types of chemotherapy may be given.
Radiotherapy can harm a baby’s development and so this treatment is generally avoided during pregnancy unless it makes an important difference to prognosis. The potential risks would be discussed with the family before any decision was made.
Will I lose my hair?
Some treatments for cancer do cause hair loss. This can affect all body hair, including the hair on your head. As our hair can form a strong part of our identity, losing it can affect confidence and be a very upsetting for some people. It can also be a constant, visual reminder of cancer for you and others.
Some people with longer hair like to cut it shorter in preparation of potential hair loss.
Some may be able to wear a ‘cold cap’ while having chemotherapy to slow down or prevent the loss of hair from the scalp.
Some people choose to wear a wig or headscarf and may begin wearing it before hair loss takes place, to have time to adjust. You may be able to access a wig or get help towards the cost of a wig through the NHS or a wig bank such as that run by the charity Cancer Hair Care.
As your hair thins your scalp may become more sensitive to cold or sunny weather. Others hair changes include: hair becoming thinner and more brittle, and hair regrowing after treatment in a different colour or even more curly. Many hairdressers will be able to help you plan for the best way to look after your hair during and after treatment.
You may also experience loss of eyebrows, eyelashes, hair on the arms/legs/face and pubic hair.
What is premature menopause?
Premature or early menopause is the onset of menopause, triggered earlier than expected, by external or unexpected circumstances. It can be brought on by many different cancer treatments including: chemotherapy, radiotherapy to the pelvis, surgical removal of the ovaries and/or drug treatments used to treat some hormonally driven breast cancers.
If menopause is triggered in these ways, the abrupt loss of hormones can trigger more intense symptoms than if it had occurred naturally.
Hot flushes/ night sweats
Insomnia/ disrupted sleep pattern
Weight gain-especially around the waist area
Changes to skin and hair
Muscle and joint pain
Lower sex drive
Poor concentration/memory loss
Fatigue/ low energy levels
Mood swings/increased irritability
Reduced self esteem
Urinary – bladder changes/infections
Vaginal dryness/pain during sex
If you are concerned that you might be experiencing premature menopause as a result of cancer treatment please speak to your healthcare team, who will either advise you what medications or treatments are safe to help you manage the symptoms or refer you on to a menopause specialist who can work with directly with your oncology team.
Will I become infertile?
Fertility can be affected by some cancer treatments, particularly if you experience premature menopause. The loss of fertility may be temporary or permanent depending on the treatment and/or cancer.
If you are hoping to grow your family after having cancer treatment, discuss this with your healthcare team before you begin treatment and they will be able to explore your options in more detail.
You can read more about the impact of fertility loss following a cancer diagnosis at Cancer Research - Coping with losing your fertility
What is lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is a long-term condition that causes swelling in the body's tissues. It can affect any part of the body, but usually develops in the arms or legs, when the lymphatic system does not work properly. Lymphoedema is a potential risk for anyone undergoing any surgery or radiotherapy to areas where lymph nodes are located.
Lymphoedema can occur in:
your arm/breast area after treatment for breast cancer, following surgery and radiotherapy. You may notice a swelling, tightness, or heaviness in your arm (usually on the same side as your breast cancer) or as swelling around your breast, underarm and back.
your legs/feet following surgery or radiotherapy to the pelvic area for cervical and uterine(womb) and other gynaecological cancers. You may notice clothing/shoes feel tight and your legs/pelvis may feel heavy, and when you press on the skin there is an indent.
the head or neck and can also cause symptoms inside your mouth and throat. You may notice swelling of your tongue and other parts of your mouth, a feeling of fullness or pressure, find it difficult to swallow, or notice changes in your voice.
It usually takes some time for Lymphoedema to develop after cancer treatment. Symptoms can take many months or even years to appear.
Some people experience swelling immediately after surgery, but this is not Lymphoedema, it’s part of the healing process and should get better within a few weeks.
If you do experience any swelling a while after treatment, or any swelling following treatment that does not reduce within the expected timeframe, speak to your healthcare team or GP who can refer you to a lymphoedema clinic. There you will get help on reducing swelling, skin care to prevent infections, and improving quality of life.
What other side-effects can I expect?
You are likely to experience fatigue and, for many people, there can be a significant an impact on emotional and mental health both during and after cancer treatment. Other common side-effects include: nausea/sickness, dizziness, bowel dysfunction, sensitivity to light and noise.
Remember, side-effects will vary from person to person, so don't panic if you experience something that another parent with the same cancer type does not.
What about my mental health?
It is extremely common to experience mental health challenges during and after cancer treatment. Your body and it's capacity to do the things you normally do will change, sometimes dramatically, and this can challenge your sense of self and your sense of safety.
Share any negative or challenging thoughts or feelings that you are having with people you trust. It may not always be the same person, or the person closest to you. Speaking to a number of different people can sometimes help to ensure that you can be heard and supported consistently.
While friends and family can be a great resource, your Mummy's Star Support Worker is always there to listen to your worries, without the concern of upsetting those close to you. They can also signpost you to professional counselling support if needed. Many mums and parents find the Mummy's Star Forum is a great place to ask questions, share experiences and gain reassurance.
How can I prepare for the side-effects of treatment?
Ask your healthcare team to give you a list of possible side-effects before treatment starts so you are prepared and can put support in place at home to help you manage them.
If anything happens that you are unsure about, tell your healthcare team, or a GP or midwife. They will be able to either reassure you directly, provide advice on medication or treatment, or look further into symptoms if needed.
If you are a mum or birthing parent having cancer treatment, and have more questions or concerns about potential side-effects, don't hesitate to reach out to your Information and Support Worker or email email@example.com for referral.