Modern medicine has done wonders for those who develop cancer, offering new treatment options and significantly increasing the likelihood of surviving the devastating disease. However, many of the drugs that can save people’s lives may also cause serious side effects. This is true for certain chemotherapy agents that are ototoxic—meaning they can damage your ears and result in hearing loss.
If you or someone you love is undergoing cancer treatment, it’s important to understand the potential side effects on hearing, how those risks can be mitigated, and how to address hearing loss going forward.*
Impact on the ears
Drugs like cisplatin, carboplatin, and other platinum-based chemotherapy agents are commonly used to treat various forms of cancer, and are known to be ototoxic. Recent research suggests how cisplatin leads to hearing loss. Although the drug is typically eliminated from the body after treatment, it can build up in the cochlea, or inner ear, and remain there for months or years after initial treatment. Its presence can damage various components of the inner ear—not just the fragile nerve cells that transmit sound but the surrounding tiny blood vessels.
Receiving treatment for cancer
Research shows that 40 to 80 percent of adults, and at least 50 percent of children, treated with cisplatin sustain permanent hearing loss. While this doesn’t mean you should reject potentially life-saving drugs, hearing loss is a legitimate concern that should be addressed with your treatment team. If you are prescribed cisplatin or another drug known to be ototoxic, an audiologist or ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT) should be included on your treatment team. These specialists can advise on dosage levels and their impact on your hearing, and they can also evaluate and monitor your hearing before, during, and after treatment.
If hearing loss is a concern, your treatment team may be able to determine if an alternative drug will be effective. Certain drugs may also help counteract the hearing loss caused by the cancer treatments. In any case, your treatment team will recommend the best options for your individual situation and determine if any alternatives or additional treatments are appropriate.
Post-cancer treatment – what to do for your hearing health
Once your treatment is over, plan on getting regular checkups with your audiologist or ENT to see if your hearing has changed, since the drug can remain in your system long after treatment ends and hearing loss can become more severe over time. If hearing loss is found, a hearing care professional can recommend the right hearing aids for your specific level of hearing loss and provide ongoing checkups.
Battling cancer can be one of the scariest things someone can do. Even after you become cancer-free, the symptoms and side effects of your treatment can be long-lasting. By identifying the risks upfront, and having a team dedicated to your health and wellbeing, you can prepare yourself for the possibility of hearing loss—and know the options for addressing and hopefully improving your hearing health.
*Not intended as an alternative for qualified medical advice. Please consult your physician when undergoing cancer treatment.