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Treatment Side Effects

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Common Side Effects

Unwanted side effects are a common consequence of treatment. Some side effects may be temporary; others may be permanent. The best treatment is planned to keep these side effects to a minimum without compromising your care.

It is important for you to talk to your doctor about any side effects you are experiencing. In many cases, your doctor can prescribe medications to help. On this webpage you will find tips on coping with many of the side effects below.


Surgery is often performed to remove tumors. It takes time to heal after surgery, and the time needed to recover differs from person to person. Initially, you may be uncomfortable. Medication can control the pain. Talk to you doctor before and after your surgery about plans for pain relief. Your surgery may also cause swelling in your face. This swelling usually goes down in a few weeks, but if you've had lymph nodes removed, the swelling may last longer. You may feel weak or tired. This is normal; it's your body's way of telling you to rest.

Surgery to remove a small tumor in your mouth may not cause lasting problems, but if you've had a larger tumor and other tissues removed (such as part of your palate, tongue, or jaw, or if you've had a laryngectomy), your ability to talk, chew, or swallow may have changed. Your face might also look different after your surgery, and you may need reconstructive or plastic surgery to rebuild the bones or tissues of the mouth or other areas.

Fibrosis (scar tissue) can often form in the neck after surgery especially if you also had radiation. It can be painful and restrict movement of the head and neck. Some physical therapists specialize in the treatment of this condition. Neck surgery can also cause long-term weakness in your arm and drooping of your shoulders. Physical therapy and exercise can also help with these problems.

Radiation Therapy

In the process of killing cancer cells, radiation therapy may also damage healthy cells. Most people who receive radiation to the head and neck develop some oral complications. Depending on the treatment you receive, you may experience:

  • Dry mouth (also called Xerostomia): Dry mouth can make it difficult for you to talk, chew, or swallow. The lack of saliva may contribute to tooth decay. Medications can be prescribed by your doctor to alleviate some some of these symptoms.
  • Difficulties swallowing or eating.
  • Redness, irritation, and sores in your mouth or throat (Mucositis): Mucositis is an inflammation of the lining of the mouth and throat caused by radiation therapy. Your doctor can suggest medicines to help control the pain and give suggestions to maintain a healthy mouth.
  • Tooth decay: Radiation can cause rampant decay problems.
  • Sore or bleeding gums.
  • Infection: The combination of dry mouth and the irritation to the lining of your mouth makes it easier for infections to develop.
  • Stiff jaw (also called Trismus): Radiation can affect the muscles used for chewing, making it difficult for you to open and close your mouth.
  • Changes in the way food tastes: Foods may taste different or seem to lose their flavor altogether.
  • Changes in the way your dentures fit: After your mouth heals and is no longer sore, your dentures may need to be refitted.
  • Changes in your voice: Radiation directed at your neck may cause some tissues to swell. You may feel as if you have a lump in your throat, or your voice may sound hoarse or week by the end of the day.
  • Fatigue: Many patients become very tired, especially in the later weeks of radiation therapy.
  • Skin changes: Skin changes, or what looks like sunburn (also called "bronzing"), may occur in the area under the treatment. It's also common for the area to become red, dry, tender, and itchy. Keep this area protected from the sun by wearing a hat or scarf. These side effects are usually temporary.


Some people experience very few side effects from chemotherapy, other people more. The side effects you have will depend on the type and amount of anticancer drugs that you receive, and how your body reacts to them.

Many anticancer drugs destroy rapidly growing cancer cells. However, healthy cells – including blood cells that fight infection (white blood cells), cells that line the moth and the digestive tract, and cells in hair follicles – may also be affected, resulting in these side effects:

  • lower resistance to infection
  • sores in the mouth and on the lips
  • loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • hair loss

You may experience fatigue, skin rash and itching, joint pain, or numbness/tingling in your hands or feet. You may have none of these side effects or just a few. Most people have no serious long-term problems from chemotherapy.

Targeted Therapy

The side effects of targeted therapy vary depending upon the specific treatment. Common side effects include flu-like symptoms, such as chills, fever, muscle aches, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Some people also find that they bleed or bruise easily, develop a skin rash, have swelling or develop severe allergic reactions, with symptoms including difficulty breathing, rash, itching and low blood pressure.