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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Physician Chu I Ta on May 18, 2022

Can TCM Help Reduce Chemotherapy Side Effects?

The tips in this article can help you better manage your chemotherapy side effects so the treatment is more manageable. Check them out here.

Chemotherapy min 1 scaled

Chemotherapy side effects may include conditions such as anemia, hair loss, fatigue, and an increased risk of infections.

Luckily, there are many things you can do to reduce these side effects to make the treatment more tolerable.

Here, our expert Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physicians discuss how to best manage your chemotherapy side effects naturally.

Six Common Chemotherapy Side Effects

Before prescribing a combined use of chemotherapy drugs, your oncologist will first analyze the possible interactions that may occur with the combination of over-the-counter medications, vitamins, or other health supplements.

Hair loss

People who lose hair will see it take place within a few weeks of the first treatment session.

Temporary hair loss usually occurs from the head but can sometimes affect the arms, legs, and face. 

Anemia

Dizziness is a common chemotherapy side effect that may be due to anemia.

Chemotherapy can also lower your body’s red blood cell count. These cells transport oxygen from the Lungs to the body’s tissues. Subsequently, the tissues utilize oxygen to produce energy and release carbon dioxide. However, a decline in red blood cells can increase a person’s risk of developing anemia. The signs of this condition include: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Pale mucosal linings such as in the mouth and eyelids
  • Shortness of breath 

Likewise, TCM believes that bone marrow suppression stems from Blood and Qi Deficiency, Blood and Jing (essence) Deficiency, and Blood Stasis.

“Chemotherapy drugs may inhibit the growth of bone marrow, and elicit symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, vertigo, dizziness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and a pale complexion,” explains Real Health Medical Chief TCM Physician Chu I Ta.

Separately, chemotherapy reduces blood platelets, which help stop severe bleeding from a cut or injury. A poor platelet count can make a person prone to bleeding gums, severe nosebleeds, and easily-bruised skin. 

Infections

White blood cells are responsible for helping the human body stave off infections. Someone undergoing chemotherapy treatment will see a decrease in their body’s white blood cells.

Stress, an unhealthy diet, and a lack of sleep weaken the immune system. A combination of these risk factors can make a person vulnerable to infections. It’s worth noting that an infection can provoke multiple symptoms, depending on the parts of the body that are affected, such as: 

  • A stiff or sore neck 
  • A fever that’s 38˚C or higher  
  • A white coating in your mouth or on your tongue 
  • Ear or sinus pain, or a headache 
  • Bloody or cloudy urine, or pain when urinating 

Gastrointestinal issues

In TCM, gastrointestinal disorders happen when Liver Qi Invades the Stomach, or when there’s Dampness and Phlegm Stagnation, Spleen and Stomach Deficiency, and Stomach Yin (passive energy) Fluid Deficiency.

Consequently, symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and oral ulcers will arise. Liver damage may also occur, with high bilirubin, alanine transaminase, aspartate transaminase, and alkaline phosphatase readings during a blood test.

Neuropathy and neurotoxicity

Neuropathy and neurotoxicity can arise from Spleen Qi (vital life force) Deficiency, Phlegm Stagnation, and Blood Stasis.

“High dosages of chemotherapy drugs can result in sensory neuronopathy and toxicity of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Toxicity of the central nervous system may damage the cerebellum and lead to symptoms like dementia and poor memory. Numbness of the face, mouth, fingers, and extremities can also transpire after chemotherapy,” says physician Chu.

Skin and nail problems

Dry, cracked, or brittle nails are often a side effect of chemotherapy.

The use of specific chemotherapy drugs can also give rise to temporary changes in the appearance of your skin and nails.

For instance, a person’s skin will become dry, itchy, slightly discolored, or red and sore. It can also be sensitive to sunlight exposure. Fingernails, meanwhile, can become flaky or brittle, and white lines may also develop.

How To Manage Chemotherapy Side Effects

The majority of side effects are short-term and manageable. These may improve gradually after a person completes treatment and their body generates new, healthy cells. 

Maintain a customized hair care routine

Generally, following a particular set of tips can help with hair loss management. 

  • Keep your hair and scalp clean using baby shampoo 
  • Apply lotion that contains moisturizer to your head 
  • Comb or brush your hair gently with a large comb or soft-bristled hairbrush 
  • Use cotton, polyester, or satin pillowcases for your pillows 
  • Wear a light, cotton headcover or beanie if you feel cold at night 

Another effective way to reduce or prevent hair loss is to use a ‘cold cap’. The cap is worn during chemotherapy and is attached to a cooling unit that fills the cap with cold liquid. It helps to briefly minimize blood flow and chemotherapy drug quantity that reaches the scalp.

Take regular breaks during the day

It’s normal to feel extremely tired after chemotherapy. Thus, you should allow your body to recover by taking regular breaks.

In doing so, you’ll be able to plan activities for periods when you feel most energetic. Incorporating light to moderate workout routines can ease fatigue and boost your mood. 

Consume herbal formulas

According to Physician Chu, proposing the right formula starts with differentiating the syndromes that relate to distinct chemotherapy side effects. To treat gastrointestinal disorders, Physician Chu recommends the use of: 

  • Pinellia and Magnolia decoction (Ban Xia Hou Po Tang) for Liver Qi Invasion of the Stomach 
  • Two-matured Ingredients Decoction (Er Chen Tang) and Poria, Cinnamoni Twig, Ovate Atractylodes, and Liquorice Decoction (Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang) for Phlegm-Stagnation and Dampness 
  • Si Jun Zi Decoction for Spleen and Stomach Deficiencies  
  • Ophiopogon Decoction (Mai Men Dong Tang) for Stomach Yin Fluid Deficiency 

Bone marrow suppression can be addressed by consuming formulas such as: 

  • Eight-treasure Decoction (Ba Zhen Tang) for Blood and Qi Deficiencies 
  • He Che Da Zao Wan and Tao Hong Si Wu Tang for Blood and Jing Deficiencies  

Neuropathy and neurotoxicity can be remedied with:  

  • Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang for Spleen Qi Deficiency  
  • Two-matured Ingredients Decoction (Er Chen Tang) and Tao Hong Si Wu Tang for Phlegm Stagnation and Stasis 

If you are experiencing a lack of appetite, you may try an Appetite Enhancement soup. If you are experiencing nausea, try sipping on ginseng tea.

Use acupuncture

Applying daily acupressure to acupoints like Zu San Li (ST36), Nei Guan (PC6), San Yin Jiao (SP6), Zhong Wan (CV12), Guan Yuan (CV4), and He Gu (LI4) can also alleviate the symptoms of neuropathy and neurotoxicity. 

Ultimately, you should seek immediate medical attention if chemotherapy side effects impair your ability to function. If you wish to use herbal formulas, speak to an oncology-trained TCM practitioner beforehand. Having this conversation can help you avoid potential contraindications.

References

  1. American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy Side Effects
  2. NHS. Chemotherapy
  3. Cleveland Clinic. Function of Red Blood Cells. 
  4. NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE. Infection and Neutropenia during Cancer Treatment.  
  5. Cancer Council Victoria. Chemotherapy.  

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