Side-effects are undesirable effects relating to drug or other medical treatments.
All drugs and medical treatments have side-effects, some more than others. When it comes to cancer, the aim is to make the treatment potent enough to kill the cancer cell (maximising efficacy) while reducing the damage caused to healthy cells or organs (minimising toxicity).
The side-effects of cancer treatments are generally well understood as treatments are rigorously tested before being approved for use in a series of clinical trials. It takes on average 12 years and anything from $US 500 million to $US 2 billion to bring a promising new drug to market. Even after a trial officially ends (which can take many years in the case of anti-cancer drugs or radiation techniques), and a treatment or technique has been approved for use, pharmaceutical companies and international research groups continue to monitor treatments for any new or unusual side-effects that may occur in routine clinical practice.
While the side-effect profiles of cancer drugs and radiation techniques are generally very well-known and predictable, the degree of a given side-effect may vary across the population. People are unique, so two people receiving the same treatment may have different experiences.
Oncologists are highly experienced at managing side-effects and at tailoring the dose of a treatment to the individual. For example, the dose of most chemotherapy or targeted therapies is usually based on the weight or body surface area of a person. Patients, such as the very elderly or those with reduced liver function, may need their dose adjusted according to the drugs’ dosing guidelines.
Medicines or other treatments, which prevent or reduce the severity of side-effects, have also made significant progress in recent times. There are now, for example, far better treatments available for nausea or vomiting, or drugs which assist the body’s neutrophils (white blood cells – important to control infection) to recover more rapidly.
Your nurse and doctor will discuss the potential side-effects of your planned treatment(s) and explain what to do should you experience them. Remember, no two people are the same. Some people experience more side-effects than others and some find the entire treatment process much easier than expected. It you do experience a side-effect and are at all concerned, it’s important that you contact your nurse and follow their instructions. Some situations may also require immediate medical attention.