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Major side effects of cancer treatment

Cancer is the worst nightmare ever to many people. Imagine a tumor that grows and spreads uncontrollably to other parts of your body, and there’s no guarantee you can get 100% recovery without relapse. As the population ages, the number of new cancer cases in Hong Kong is expected to rise by up to 40 percent and reach over 40,000 by 2030, a report says. Meanwhile, the statistics from the Hong Kong Cancer Registry show a record high of 31,468 cases diagnosed in 2016.

Nowadays, the major treatment options for most forms of cancers are chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, yet they often come with numerous side effects. Therefore, how to eradicate the cancer cells effectively without seriously hampering the daily life of the patient becomes a big topic in the medical field. In this feature today, Pacific Prime Hong Kong will summarize the most common types of side effects during cancer treatment and how to cope with them.

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Nausea and Vomiting

Chemotherapy is the most common cause of nausea (feeling sick to your stomach) and vomiting (throwing up). Although they are not life-threatening, intense and frequent bouts of vomiting may have a big impact on the quality of life. How likely you will suffer from nausea and vomiting depends on various factors, including:

  • The types of chemo drugs used;
  • The dose of the drugs;
  • When and how often the drugs are prescribed, i.e. if two doses are given close together, the patient is more likely to vomit;
  • How the drugs are given, i.e. patients are more likely to vomit if the chemo is given into a vein instead of being given by mouth since it is absorbed much faster through a vein;
  • Individual differences, i.e. some people are more prone to vomit like those who get carsick easily;
  • Whether the patient has a brain tumor or not.

There are a number of ways you can manage nausea and vomiting:

  • Take an anti-nausea medicine

Your doctor will administer anti-sickness medication, by mouth or intravenously, before each cycle of chemotherapy. And such treatment should continue for as long as the chemo is likely to cause vomiting, which may be up to 7 to 10 days after the last dose.

  • Drink plenty of water

Drinking can keep you hydrated after you have thrown up so that your body won’t lose too much fluid. You can sip on water, fruit juices, ginger ale, tea, or sports drinks throughout the day.

  • Avoid certain food

Greasy, spicy, fried, or salty food should be avoided if you get sick after eating them. You should also try cold foods that do not have strong smells or let food cool down before you eat it.


Both chemotherapy and radiotherapy may bring along fatigue. Since resting does not help with this kind of fatigue, it has become one of the side effects that are hard to overcome and can affect your body and mind seriously. You may not even perform simple everyday tasks and lack the energy to do things you want to do.

Below are a few steps you can take to deal with fatigue:

  • Try to balance rest and activity

Partake in activities that are relaxing to you, such as listening to music, drawing, reading, and meditating. These relaxing activities can help you lower the stress level and preserve more energy.

  • Keep a fatigue diary

Record your level of fatigue every day from 1 (not fatigue at all) to 10 (extreme fatigue). This method allows you to plan your day, engage in the activities that are more important to you first, and make the most of your times when you feel more energetic.

  • Get more rests between daily activities

Small naps can help you replenish your energy. However, you should limit the number of these daytime naps and keep them at less than an hour so that you can sleep at night.

Hair loss (Alopecia)

Some types of chemotherapy, as well as radiation therapy, may cause the hair on your head and other body parts to fall out, including eyelashes, eyebrow, armpit hair, and pubic hair. This is because chemotherapy damages all active cells, some of which are healthy ones such as those in your blood, mouth, digestive system, and hair follicles. In other words, chemotherapy cannot identify healthy cells from unhealthy ones.

However, the good news is that hair loss led by chemotherapy is tentative. It usually happens about one to three week after the first treatment session and your hair will grow back three to ten months after the last session.

On the other hand, the hair loss caused by radiation therapy only affects the area where radiation is administered.

Here are a few ways you can manage your hair loss:

  • Wear a wig

You may consider wearing a wig or hairpiece that looks similar to your hair before your hair starts to fall out. Or you can purchase a wig with a new hairstyle. If you find wigs to be itchy and hot, you can wear a comfortable scarf or turban.

  • Protect and care your scalp

Use a sunscreen or wear a hat when you are outside. Wash your hair with a mild shampoo and gently pat dry it with a soft towel. If your scalp feels itchy, you can apply lotions and conditioners. Limiting the number of times you wash your hair can also help.

Skin and nail changes

Imaginably, since chemo drugs kill both healthy and unhealthy cells, they may also cause your skin to become more sensitive, dry, or prone to reactions such as rashes.

As for the nail, some patients may see their nails turning dark or yellow. Not only is there a change in color, but the nails can also become brittle or cracked. In some cases, the nail may lift off the bed entirely and fall out.

To cope with your skin and nail problems, you can adhere to the following advice:

  • Use recommended skin products only

Specific creams and lotions can help moisturize your skin and are less likely to irritate your skin. It is also a smart move to test it on a small skin area first.

  • Treat minor nail problems

Keep your nails short and clean. Wear protective gloves when you are doing chores. If your toenails are affected, you should also avoid wearing tight-fitting shoes.

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Seek insurance advice from a professional insurance brokerage

For protection against different kinds of cancer, you may consider securing critical illness insurance or international health insurance. The former provides you with a lump sum payment which gives you the liberty to spend on whatever you want; while the latter offers you quality healthcare in virtually anywhere in the world (though some plans do exclude the U.S.). Having an effective health insurance policy in place can protect you from the hefty medical bills of treating cancer, as well as offering you and your family the much-needed peace of mind.

With over 18 years of experience and nine offices around the world, Pacific Prime Hong Kong is adept at matching clients with the plan that best matches their needs. Contact us today for impartial advice, a no-obligation quote, and/or a plan comparison.

Senior SEO & Content Marketing Lead at Pacific Prime Hong Kong
With over 13 years of experience in bilingual content creation and digital marketing, Anthony Chan is a seasoned writer and editor for Pacific Prime and its subsidiary, Kwiksure. Leveraging his deep understanding of local and international insurance landscapes, he crafts a diverse range of online and offline articles, reports, e-newsletters, videos, and more.

His expertise encompasses a broad range of areas including international health insurance, employee benefits solutions, motor insurance, life insurance, and various other forms of general insurance. This breadth of knowledge enables him to distill an array of complex insurance concepts into a series of progressive, easily understandable articles.

Anthony earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Lingnan University, majoring in Translation and minoring in English. He also studied at West Virginia University in the United States as an exchange student.

When he’s not working, Anthony can typically be found on the badminton court, in the gym, or at the cinema.
Anthony Chan