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Steroids and Cancer Treatment

When you hear the word steroid you may think of "roid rage" and muscle-bound gym rats with shrunken testicles. But if your doctor prescribed steroids as part of your treatment for cancer or another serious illness, don't worry. It's not "that" kind of steroid.

Your doctor is actually talking about cortisol, a form of steroid that your body produces naturally. It's different from anabolic steroids, which are the illegal muscle-building kind.

How Steroids Help

Although the cortisol-type steroids prescribed for cancer treatment are different from anabolic steroids, you still need to take them under the close supervision of your doctor or medical specialist.

You'll probably get a manmade version of the natural steroid cortisol, such as:

  • cortisone
  • hydrocortisone
  • prednisone
  • methylprednisolone

These can help with your treatment in a variety of ways:

  • reduce nausea associated with chemotherapy and radiation
  • kill cancer cells and shrink tumors as part of chemotherapy
  • decrease swelling
  • reduce allergic reactions (before transfusions, for example)
  • lessen headaches caused by brain tumors

Sometimes, your doctor will recommend steroid treatments just to help you sleep, eat, and feel better.

Doctors can prescribe steroids for cancer treatment several ways:

  • by injection
  • through an intravenous (IV) drip
  • in liquid or pill form
  • as a cream

Side Effects

Steroids used in medical treatments can have some side effects, although they're not as extreme as the side effects from anabolic steroids. Talk to your doctor and ask questions if you're worried.

You may not have any side effects. But if you do, don't worry — they'll only last as long as you're taking the steroids. When you stop your treatment, things will return to normal.

Some of the more common side effects of steroid treatments include:

  • increased appetite
  • weight gain, often in unfamiliar places, like your cheeks or the back of your neck
  • mood swings
  • stomach upset or ulcers
  • osteoporosis (weaker bones)
  • vision problems
  • higher blood pressure
  • increased blood sugar. Sometimes, people develop diabetes temporarily. If you already have diabetes, you'll need to monitor your blood sugar levels more closely.
  • for girls, irregular menstruation (missed or late periods)

Less common side effects include bruising more easily, difficulty fighting infections, acne flare-ups, and increased facial hair.

If you develop several of these symptoms, you have a condition called Cushing syndrome. Sometimes it gets better if you make changes in the way you take the steroids. If you're having problems with these side effects, talk to your doctor.

Remember, you may not have any side effects. If you do, you'll probably find that they're overshadowed by the benefits of the treatment. But check with your doctor about ways to make them easier to live with.

Tips on Taking Steroids for Cancer Treatment

Your doc will give you all the details, of course, but there are some things to remember when taking steroids for cancer treatment. Here are a few:

Don't stop taking the medication without your doctor's guidance. If you notice anything strange while you're being treated with steroids, tell your parents and doctor right away. Don't stop taking the steroid, though. Your body makes less cortisol when you're having steroid treatments, so you need to ease off the medication and give your body a chance to get its own production back up to normal again. If you don't, your body could go through a potentially serious withdrawal. Weaning your body off the medication is easy to do, and your doctor will guide you through it.

Your card — don't leave home without it. A lot of steroid treatments happen in a doctor's office or clinic. But if you're on a long-term steroid treatment and have pills to take at home, your doctor may give you a steroid card or a medical alert bracelet. It's important to keep this card with you (or wear your medical alert bracelet) at all times. If there's an emergency, the card or bracelet will let doctors know you're being treated with steroids — or have been recently, which can change the treatment they need to give you.

Don't "double-up" if you miss a dose. Call your doctor or nurse and ask what to do if you forget to take a tablet.

No flush, no foul. If your treatment is done and you have tablets left over, give them to your doctor or a pharmacist. Don't flush them down the toilet or throw them away because they could get into the water supply and cause problems.

Reviewed by: Christopher N. Frantz MD
Date reviewed: March 2009

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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