How Steroids Help Cancer Treatment

When it comes to breast cancer, treatments like radiation, chemotherapy, lumpectomy, and mastectomy all probably sound pretty familiar. However, a treatment that’s not often talked about in detail — but frequently prescribed — is steroids.

When you think about steroids, the first image that comes to mind may be of a hulked-out bodybuilder or athlete with muscles for days and perhaps a smidge of “roid rage” hanging in an angry cloud over them.

That’s not the purpose of steroid use for cancer treatment, though the weight increase and mood changes can be side effects. Here we’ll outline what steroids are, and why they’re beneficial during cancer treatment.

What Are Steroids?

Photo: Adobe Stock/santyaga01
Photo: Adobe Stock/santyaga01

Steroids are produced naturally in the body within your adrenal glands, located above your kidneys. They help reduce inflammation; manage your metabolism by affecting how your body utilizes fats, proteins, and carbs; and help regulate your immune system, among other things.

Synthetic steroids (or corticosteroids) are man-made versions of what your body produces naturally. The kind prescribed for cancer treatment are different than the ones used by fitness enthusiasts to bulk up muscle mass.

For cancer treatment, steroids help the efficacy of the treatment you’re already getting, or can offset other side effects. The most common ones prescribed in the U.S. are hydrocortisone, dexamethasone, methylprednisolone, prednisolone, and prednisone, and they have different primary functions.

How Steroids Are Used In Treatment

Photo: Adobe Stock/Monkey Business
Photo: Adobe Stock/Monkey Business

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Steroids can help with pain management, help with the efficacy of some chemo treatments, reduce nausea and therefor stimulate appetite, and help prevent allergic reactions. They can also help with the management of your body’s water and salt content, body temperature, and blood pressure. They’re typically only given for a short period of time.

They can be taken orally as tablets, or, if you have difficulty swallowing, as a syrup or dissolved in liquid. It can irritate your digestive system if taken alone, so it is often recommended to take steroids with food or milk. They can also be given as an injection, whether it’s a quick injection or a slow drip that takes up to 30 minutes.

Because steroids are prescribed for a variety of different reasons, be sure to ask your medical team the purpose of the specific steroid(s) you’re being given.

Side Effects

Photo: Adobe Stock/toa555
Photo: Adobe Stock/toa555

The side effects of steroids get more pronounced if they are taken at a high dosage or for an extended period of time.

As mentioned above, steroids can cause an increase in appetite, whether or not that’s the goal of its use. Because of that, it can also cause weight gain. A common complaint about steroids is that it can cause puffiness in the face, neck, or abdomen. This is due to an increase in fatty tissue, which will subside after the drug is stopped.

Insomnia can be a common short-term side effect, as steroids can cause hyperawareness and increased energy, so take your pills in the morning, or work with your medical team to schedule injections earlier in the day if you experience an inability to rest. Steroid use can have a deep impact on mood as well. You may become more irritable and restless, depressed, or quick to anger; sometimes, your mood could be altered so severely that it leads to confusion, paranoia, or even mania.

Steroids can also lower the body’s ability to fight infection. When paired with chemo, it’s important to take preventative measures to getting sick, as chemo also opens up your body to infection.

Long-term use can cause fluid retention, a spike in blood pressure, and increase your blood sugar levels and risk for diabetes. Prolonged steroid use can also result in the loss of muscle mass, which is known as “wasting.”

Photo: Adobe Stock/sframe
Photo: Adobe Stock/sframe

When your medical team determines you no longer need to use steroids, its crucial to gently wean off of the treatment. That’s because when you take a synthetic version of steroids, your body stops making its own supply after a while. Tapering off treatment tells your adrenal glands to kick back into steroid production so that you don’t experience a serious condition called adrenal failure.

Steroids can increase the fighting power of your cancer regimen in a variety of ways, when used properly. Always talk to your doctor if you have concerns about a treatment or its side effects.

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