Embarrassing Chemo Side Effects

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 whole slew of potential pains and annoyances — and you may not be aware 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 clearly easier said than done. But explaining to family or friends about what’s going on (and preparing them for the inevitable brain fart or actual fart) may ease your mind when the side effect actually makes its presence known in front of others.

You may not want to send out an office memo declaring the last stall in the bathroom as your personal one, but being realistic about what’s happening to you and accepting it may help ease your embarrassment.

(And if you’re not embarrassed by anything on this list, more power to you!)


Photo: AdobeStock/Oleksandr

Photo: AdobeStock/Oleksandr

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 terrifyingly 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.


Photo: Adobe Stock/vladdeep

Photo: Adobe Stock/vladdeep

Increased flatulence is a legitimate side effect of chemo, friends. It can make your digestive tract speed up or slow down, or change your gut bacteria, 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 of them, 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!

Chemo brain

Photo: Adobe Stock/Natalie Board

Photo: Adobe Stock/Natalie Board

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.

Mouth Issues

Photo: Adobe Stock/pathdoc

Photo: Adobe Stock/pathdoc

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. It’s okay to tell people that you have different dietary needs now. (And if you really can’t stand Aunt Carol’s cooking to begin with, then you have a great excuse not to eat it!)

Click “NEXT” for more embarrassing side effects.

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.
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