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Peripheral Neuropathy as a Result of Cancer

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Peripheral neuropathy is a neurological condition involving damage to the peripheral nerves—the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. Unfortunately, ten to 20 percent of cancer patients develop peripheral neuropathy during their course of treatment. While peripheral neuropathy adds an additional strain to a cancer patient's treatment and recovery, the American Society of Clinical Oncology notes that “many people recover fully from the disorder over time, whether it is in a few months or a few years.”

Link to Cancer

Not every cancer patient will develop peripheral neuropathy. The American Society of Clinical Oncology states that patients with lung cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma and Hodgkin lymphoma have the greatest risk, due to the treatment options. The largest cause of peripheral neuropathy secondary to cancer is the chemotherapy drugs. In large doses, these drugs can damage the peripheral nerves:

--Platinums (cisplatin, oxaliplatin and carboplatin)
--Taxanes (docetaxel and paclitaxel)
--Vinca alkaloids (vincristine, vinorelbine, vinblastin)

Cytarabine, flurouracil, interferon and methotrexate can also cause damage to the peripheral nerves, though the American Society of Clinical Oncology notes that this is less common. Other possible causes of peripheral neuropathy include radiation therapy, the location of the tumor, vitamin deficiency from excessive vomiting, paraneoplastic disorders and surgery. However, with radiation therapy, tumor location and surgery, they must have a direct impact on the peripheral nerves; for example, surgery becomes a risk if the peripheral nerves were damaged during the operation.


The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy vary—they depend on which peripheral nerves were damaged.

Sensory Nerves

The sensory nerves are responsible for sensation, such as touch. When damaged due to peripheral neuropathy, the most common symptom is tingling, burning or numbness that begins in the toes or fingers; this can spread up through the feet or hands. Some patients may have a loss of sensation; others may experience heightened pain. The patient may also lose her position sense—“which means knowing where [her] feet and hands are in space, which may make walking or picking up objects more difficult,” according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Motor Nerves

Motor nerves control movement—they send messages between the muscles and brain. Symptoms include problems walking, moving around, balance and coordination, plus muscle cramps and muscle loss.

Autonomic Nerves

The last group of peripheral nerves are the autonomic nerves, which control involuntary bodily functions. Patients who have damage to the autonomic nerves may experience problems sweating normally, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, sexual dysfunction and trouble swallowing.

Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch received her bachelor’s of science degree in neuroscience from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in May 2009. She is the Hartford Women's Health Examiner and she writes about abuse on Suite 101.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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