Steroids and cancer treatment: Why am I on them?

Steroids are substances that you make naturally in your body. They can be replicated and made in the lab to help treat certain side effects or symptoms, as well as increase the efficacy of some chemotherapies. Steroids play important roles in several different mechanisms throughout the body, including fight and flight (stress) and immune responses.

People will often think of an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style figure when hearing the term steroids. And you’d be right, the controversial medication that bodybuilders use to increase muscle mass is a type of steroid, but they are called anabolic steroids. Due to their side-effects and the legalities behind them, it is unlikely you will be prescribed anabolic steroids. The steroids used in the cancer setting are called corticosteroids. Common steroids prescribed in the cancer setting are:

  • Dexamethasone

  • Prednisolone

  • Hydrocortisone

  • Methylprednisolone

Why would I be prescribed steroids?

Corticosteroids, or just steroids, can be prescribed for a wide-range of conditions. Steroids help reduce inflammation and are a great sidekick to some chemotherapy regimes.

Steroids can be prescribed for the following reasons:

  • As treatment for some bone marrow cancers

  • Increase efficacy of some chemotherapy agents

  • Reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemo

  • Decrease risk of allergic reactions to chemo

  • Stimulate appetite

  • Reduce pain associated caused by inflammation

What are the common side effects of steroids?

Steroids prescribed during cancer treatment, are usually prescribed for a period of time. You may start experiencing symptoms relating to steroids but may not have been told about them. Steroids can cause the following side effects:

  • Mood changes (anxiousness/feeling jittery)

  • Insomnia

  • Increased appetite

  • Stomach cramps

  • Acne and thinning of the skin

  • Weight gain

  • Fluid retention

  • Steroid induced diabetes

Many of these side effects are manageable and can be lessened if known about beforehand. For example, taking steroids in the morning, and not the before bed can reduce insomnia and the feeling of being jittery at nighttime.

People that have stomach ulcers or acid reflux may experience stomach cramps or find their ulcers worsening once on steroids. Medications such as proton pump inhibitors can be prescribed to help reduce acidity and the stomach issues caused by steroids.

Weight gain and steroids.

There is an opinion that people undergoing chemo, or other cancer treatments lose weight, and for many this is true. But now, with the advances in anti-nausea medications and steroids, people often find themselves putting on weight.

Weight gain for some people can be distressing; it can lead to low self-esteem and confidence. For many, they are not told that they may experience weight gain, but  nutrition advice is revolved around eating when feeling up to it. And this is very important. Keeping up your nutrition during cancer treatment is pivotal to maintaining energy levels, and alleviating fatigue, improving mood and sleep patterns. But if you do find you’re struggling between the two and resulting in unwanted weight gain, ask to speak to a nutritionist who will be able to provide you with some tips to finding a balance.

Steroids can also cause you to retain water. Fluid retention can make you look puffy in your face. The “moon face” look should subside once your reduce or finish using steroids.

Is there anything else I should look out for while taking steroids?

Steroids can result in lowering your immunity and increasing your risk to infection. It is important that when undergoing cancer treatment that includes steroids, to seek advice immediately if you become unwell or start developing fever like symptoms. You may feel silly, or over concerned, but your doctor and nurse would prefer you to be over cautious and come in immediately at the first sign of infection and be treated properly, then wait and become more unwell.

Steroids can induce diabetes in some people. Although a rare side effect, if not picked up quickly can be dangerous for your health. Your nurse will be checking your blood sugar levels regularly (the test is a small finger prick), but contact your doctor immediately if you experience the following symptoms:

  • Urinating frequently (more than usual)
  • Constant thirst
  • Increased fatigue

Live Better With recommends the following products to help with the side effects associated with steroids:

To help with skin concerns:

Defiant Beauty Smooth Skin Balm

Steroids can cause acne or lead to thinning of the skin; causing it to be more delicate than usual. The Defiant Beauty Smooth Skin Balm contains St. John's Wort and Calendula, which helps with skin rejuvenation as well as keeps skin smooth and hydrated. 

To help with increased appetite:

Pulsin Choc Chip Snack Bars

Steroids can cause stimulate your appetite, causing you unwanted weight gain. Choosing healthy snacks can keep your energy levels up without leading too much weight gain. Pulsin Choc Chip Snack Bars come in three delicious flavours, have no added sugar and are low GI; meaning they a slow releasing to help control blood sugar levels and reduce sugary cravings. 

To help with stress and anxiety: 

The Cancer Survivors Companion

Steroids can cause mood changes in some people. These changes in mood can present as anxiety and increased stress levels. During these bouts, it can be difficult to calm the mind and focus on the present. The Cancer Survivors Companion is a reassuring book that acknowledges the emotions that occur during a cancer diagnosis and provides tips and support to get you through them.

Badger Balm Tension Soother Balm

Containing ingredients such as lavender, tangerine and extra virgin olive oil, the Badger Balm Tension Soother Balm has been formulated to relax a busy mind. 

To help you fall asleep:

Sleep Easy Set

Getting to sleep on steroids can be difficult. The Sleep Easy Set contains an eye mask to help block out any distractions, and the Badger Sleep Balm. The Badger Sleep Balm contains lavender, bergamot, rosemary ginger and balsam to sooth the mind and encourage sleep. 

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