When we think of chemo, the first side effect that typically comes to mind is hair loss, followed by bone-weary fatigue and perhaps the image of someone throwing up in the bathroom.
Chemo comes with a variety of potential pains and annoyances, and you may not be aware of all of them before you start your treatment. So it can make you balk when you suddenly have a bout of uncontrollable diarrhea, and then another, and another, and are left wondering what the heck is happening.
You’re not alone. It’s not just you. Cringe-worthy side effects happen to lots of people going through chemo. And since chemo kills fast-growing healthy cells like those in your gut, mouth, and reproductive system, the opportunity for embarrassing entrances and exits abound.
Sometimes, the best way to conquer something uncomfortable is to just be open about it — which is easier said than done. You may not want to send out an office memo declaring that the last stall in the bathroom needs to be reserved for you at all times, but explaining to family or friends what’s going on (and preparing them for the inevitable brain fart or actual fart) may ease your mind when the side effect makes its presence known in public.
Here are some potentially embarrassing side effects to be aware of — and if you’re not embarrassed by anything on this list, more power to you!
This side effect can be a doozy, and can make knowing where the nearest bathroom is at all times a top priority. It can be humorous when people in the movies experience an inescapable and sudden need to use the bathroom (think Bridesmaids) but in real life it can be super embarrassing, especially if you’re not at home.
Severe diarrhea can cause dehydration, so keep track of your bowel movements (reaching out to your doctor if it suddenly becomes severe) and drink plenty of fluids. Some medications, like those used to prevent nausea, can also cause diarrhea.
Do what you can to help avoid diarrhea by making small changes to your diet, like eating small meals throughout the day rather than large ones, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, dairy, and fried foods, and any foods known to have a laxative-like effect on your bowels, like coffee and prune juice.
And keep in mind that everybody poops.
Increased flatulence is a legitimate side effect of chemo, friends. Chemo can change your gut bacteria or make your digestive tract speed up or slow down, and gas bubbles may increase as a result of that. Unfortunately, “chemo farts” are real, and they sure do make their presence known.
To help mitigate the stinkiness and frequency, you can try tricks like drinking peppermint tea to help aid in digestion, eating smaller meals, and drinking lots of water. Medication for acid reflux may help with excessive burping, but be sure to discuss any additional medications with your doctor. You could also use the tried-and-true excuse of blaming it on the dog (if you have a dog and said dog is around you).
Or, you could simply warn your friends and family that it’s a side effect of the chemo you’re on. After all, similar to what we said above, everybody toots.
And if you happen to have a brother or friend who is notorious for letting a toot loose without warning, well, the next time you see them — it’s time for payback, baby!
Many people have heard the phrase chemo brain before, but living through it is a whole different story. Being unable to remember simple things and feeling like your head is in a fog isn’t just a minor nuisance; it can be downright scary. It is understandably embarrassing to forget the name of a coworker or blank on what you were talking about in the middle of a conversation.
To help clear the fog a bit, you can keep your brain active with puzzles and reading, get plenty of rest, avoid overstimulating yourself, and, of course, talk to your doctor about it. Confiding in your family or close friends, or finding a support group for cancer patients can also make a world of difference. Admitting a struggle can sometimes help release the hold it has on us, especially if we’re carrying around a bunch of shame or embarrassment along with it. Going through chemo is hard enough. Be easy on yourself.
Tooth decay, dry mouth, mouth sores — going through chemo can turn your mouth into an amusement park of perplexing and scary things. Not only can these issues feel unpleasant or painful, but they can make it difficult to talk or kiss or eat or drink. Plus, when your Aunt Carol makes her famous lasagna, you don’t want to have to pretend to choke it down if the texture and acidity are too much for you — and you don’t want to offend her either.
Avoid things that can exacerbate the sores or discomfort you already have, like acidic drinks, alcohol, and hot or spicy food. Getting a metallic taste in your mouth is common, so use plastic cutlery. Rinsing your mouth with salt water or water mixed with baking soda may also help ease some symptoms and keep your mouth clean. If friends or family are bringing you meals, let them know what foods and drinks bother you.
This is another situation where admitting that you’re struggling can go a long way in helping others help you. It sucks to not be able to eat certain foods or gag at the texture of yogurt, and it’s okay to tell people that you have different dietary needs now. (And, bonus, if you really can’t stand Aunt Carol’s cooking to begin with, then you have a great excuse not to eat it.)
Not only does chemo affect your weight, but other aspects of your cancer battle can as well, like elevated stress levels, being less physically active, and taking medications like steroids, pain medications, or antidepressants to combat other chemo side effects. Gaining weight is more common than losing weight, but both are possible.
It can be tough to accept the changes in your body already if you’ve had surgery, and deviating from your typical weight can compound that sense of loss. First, be kind to yourself. Do what you can to eat healthy, drink lots of water, and move if you feel up to it — but there’s only so much you can do when the weight gain is a result of medication. So when you find yourself critiquing yourself when you look in the mirror, focus on small things you can do to make you feel better about your appearance, like putting on a pretty scarf or a flattering outfit, or trying out fake eyelashes. And know that the person that you are right now during treatment is still lovable, and lovely.
Neuropathy, which is damage to the peripheral nervous system that usually starts in the hands or feet, can be alarming. You may feel pain, discomfort, numbness, or tingling in your extremities. You may find it difficult to fasten clothing, keep your balance, or walk normally for a while. You may feel clumsy and need to be more careful about doing everyday tasks that were no problem for you before.
It’s frustrating, and having to act as fragile as you feel can be disheartening. Not to mention that buttoning up your coat or tying your grandchild’s shoes can become a much more difficult task. Don’t rush yourself or try to do more than your body is able to do. Keep in mind that your slower pace and careful movements are also helping you prevent injury.
There are several ways to help prevent neuropathy or treat the condition that you can learn about here.
You may experience changes to your sexual health, and it’s something that a lot of people aren’t comfortable bringing up to medical professionals. It may seem like a no-brainer to keep what happens in the privacy of your bedroom private — but if you’re struggling, there are ways to make things more comfortable. And medical professionals have seen and heard it all, so it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
Vaginal dryness is a side effect of chemo, and is also a symptom of early menopause. Even if you’re uncomfortable bringing it up with the doctor, you should bring it up with your partner. Not talking about it, pretending you’re okay, or letting your embarrassment get the better of you doesn’t help anyone.
Because chemo can lead to dehydration and also lower your body’s ability to fight infection, your risk of getting a urinary tract infection (UTI) increases. Though it’s painful, don’t avoid going to the bathroom, and talk to your doctor about it.
Speaking of a low sex drive — chemo can trigger early menopause, which, along with a low sex drive comes with side effects like hot flashes, mood swings, and difficulty sleeping. It can wreak havoc on your mental state.
Focus on activities that you enjoy doing, dress in layers to keep the hot flashes from causing you to melt into a puddle, and recognize any people or events that seem to trigger moodiness so you can limit them when possible. Again, be kind to yourself and lean on your loved ones, and open up about your struggles with early menopause to people you trust. And, pro tip, wear black clothing if you want to hide otherwise visible sweat stains.
Do you have any embarrassing stories that are chemo-related? Please feel free to share them with us. Being able to laugh at the madness that is chemo may be just the thing you need. And remember to take care of yourself.
C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband, son, and dog.