Let’s be clear -there are steroids… and then there are steroids.

We’re talking about the kind used in cancer treatment – synthetic derivatives of the natural steroid cortisol. We’re not talking about the illegal, anabolic type that bodybuilders use. Steroids have many purposes in cancer treatment:

  • to control nausea and vomiting
  • to kill cancer cells as chemotherapy
  • to reduce allergic reactions (before platelet transfusions, as an example)
  • to help headaches caused by brain tumors

Oh, Those Side Effects…

Increased appetite and weight gain

One of the most difficult side effects of steroids is weight gain. Don’t be surprised if you are ravenously hungry – able and willing to eat anything in sight. If you lost a lot of weight during chemo because of nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, diarrhea, etc., it may feel wonderful to eat again. You can use a few extra pounds. Your parents are probably thrilled to see you eating (what is it about parents and food?).feb02a43 But some teens gain a lot of weight when on steroids and it can be distressing. It’s not just the weight gain, but how your body fat gets redistributed that’s troubling. You might look like a chipmunk storing nuts for the winter. Fullness in your cheeks or what is sometimes called “moon face” is one effect of steroids. Another is the accumulation of fatty tissue at the back of your neck, creating a hump – sometimes revoltingly referred to as a “buffalo hump”. (OK, it’s not really funny but what the heck – you could go to a masquerade party as Quasimodo and not need a costume. Might as well laugh about it – it beats crying.) But have no fear – this side effect will last only as long as you are taking steroids. This temporary treatment will not change your appearance forever. Once you have tapered off the steroids, your body will slowly start to resemble the “old you” again.

Emotional Ups and Downs

Another difficult-to-deal-with side effect is mood swings. Some days you will wonder if you have completely lost your mind – happy one minute, depressed the next. Your family and friends might hide for cover, fearing for their lives, when your “Don’t even look at me” mood strikes. The good news: this is one time you can verifiably blame it on “the drugs.” You might also have trouble sleeping (enough to make you irritable all by itself). Try taking your steroids early in the day to not disrupt your sleep patterns.

Hair Growth and Skin Problems

As long as we’re talking about outwardly obvious side effects of steroids, there is one more – hair growth in places hair should not be growing. This is especially cruel for girls. You may experience hair growth on your face, usually along your cheekbone. Trust us – it will go away. In the meantime, trying to remove it may make it more noticeable. Shaving will only leave stubble, and hair removers may irritate your skin. Guys – this might be your best shot at a beard! Steroids sometimes make your skin sort of thin, causing you to bruise more easily. And you might develop some acne on your face or other parts of your body. Just when you thought you had outgrown pimples!

Other side effects

These are less obvious, thankfully, but still need to be monitored:

  • Increased blood pressure (don’t sweat the small stuff)
  • Increased risk of infection ( (be careful around kids with chickenpox)
  • Stomach upsets ( (take your steroids with food or a glass of milk)
  • Steroids might also be responsible for these long-term side effects:
    • Eye problems like cataracts and glaucoma
    • Osteoporosis

When your treatment is over, your doctor will recommend a plan to gradually taper off the drugs. This is important -don’t stop taking steroids cold turkey.

The Bottom Line…

There’s not much you can do to prevent the side effects of steroids. If they help you get well, it will seem a small price to pay in the long run. But it’s still tough right now, we know. Sam SmilingDon’t ever forget – you are still the “same old you” on the inside. That never changes. To wax philosophical for a minute: Teens on our advisory board said they learned “that you can’t judge people by how they look”. When you look different yourself, you know how it feels to be judged by your appearance. You will be much more compassionate and understanding of others as a result of this experience. This is a life lesson some people never learn.

20051005a_rochester_0161Maybe you’re lucky, in a way.