Montessa Lee, Lung cancer patient/advocate

Dr. Vincent Lam, Assistant Professor of Oncology, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center

In this episode of Hope with Answers, we hear from Dr. Vincent Lam from Johns Hopkins Medical Center about the side effects of chemotherapy that people may experience. We learn more about the chemotherapy’s impact on fast-growing cells such as the bone marrow, the hair cells and cells in the gut; as well as low red blood cell and white blood cell counts that can lead to anemia and fatigue.

What are the types of side effects that a patient might experience with chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy works by killing the fastest growing cells in our body, because it interferes specifically with the ability of cells to proliferate or multiply. These fast growing cells are exactly the cancer cells that we’re trying to target. Unfortunately, we also have good cells that grow relatively quick, and growth can be impacted causing some collateral damage.

So this includes cells in our bone marrow, which turnover relatively quickly, and that encompasses white blood cells that help protect us against infection. And red blood cells that help carry oxygen throughout our blood. We also have our hair cells that grow relatively quickly, which is why we have hair loss with chemotherapy. And then also cells in our gut which help contribute to the nausea that our patients feel sometimes.

Why is fatigue such a big side effect?

Diagnosed with Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC) in 2006 at 28, Montessa Lee shares her own cancer treatment story; describing how she needed a blood transfusion and was often fatigued during treatment.

Dr. Lam explains, “When your red blood cell count is low you can become anemic, making you fatigued. Also, when your white blood cell counts are low that can contribute to some significant fatigue as well.”