Chemotherapy Side Effects And What To Do About Them
Chemotherapy is the use of chemicals to kill cancer cells or prevent them from dividing.
There have been great strides made in the use of chemotherapy drugs and tailoring doses to the individual. The effect has been to reduce the number and severity of side effects.
Even though chemotherapy is tailored to the individual, every person reacts differently to chemotherapy and different drugs cause different side effects. No one can predict who will and who will not have side effects, or the extent of the side effects. You may be one of the people who have no or few problems. How you react to a particular chemotherapy has no relationship to whether or not it is helping you.
There are medications and other steps to take to prevent or lessen side effects.
It is advisable to talk to your doctor and nurse about the following:
- Which side effects are most likely with your particular chemotherapy
- When they may start
- How long the potential side effects might last
- How bad they might be
- What medications may help in addition to the tips in our specific side effect articles. Consider asking your doctor for a prescription for side effects that could occur in your situation. If you get prescriptions ahead of time, you don't have to fill them unless you need them.
- When to call the doctor or otherwise seek medical care for each common side effect. For general information see our article: "When To Call Your Doctor While Receiving Chemotherapy."
Keep in mind that side effects from chemotherapy can continue for a while after treatment ends. At the same time, many people have no long-term problems from chemotherapy.
Following is an alphabetized list of common side effects from all types of chemotherapy. Click on a link to learn about how to cope with a particular side effect. For information about the causes of side effects, click here.
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Appetite Loss and weight changes
- Birth defects if chemo is given during pregnancy. (For information about preserving the ability to have children, see: Children: Preserving the Ability To Have)
- Bone Marrow cells in your bone marrow can be suppressed.
- Bruising and bleeding, increased chance of
- Chemo Brain
- Dry and/or discolored skin
- Early fullness
- Emotional changes
- Family and Friends
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Hair loss cells that grow hair--this can cause hair loss on your whole body. Generally hair grows back.
- Hearing problems such as ringing in the ears, hearing impairment or increased sensitivity to noise. Your doctor may have a medication that can help. Acupunture helps some people.
- Infection (NOTE: Patients are most susceptible to a bacterial infection about 7-12 days after the start of a chemo treatment)
- Intestinal and stomach problems
- Kidney and bladder irritation
- Mouth sores/sore throat/dryness/difficulty in swallowing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Nails may become discolored, brittle and/or sensitive.
- Nerve and muscle problems
- Other organs of the body can be affected by some chemo drugs.
- Pregnancy. Most chemotherapy can cause birth defects if there is pregnancy during treatment. Ask your doctor about what kinds of birth control you should use and for how long.
- Radiation recall for people who have had radiation
- Sex and Sexuality changes such as loss of libido, erectile dysfunction in men or increased vaginal dryness in women.
- Skin changes caused by targeted chemotherapy
- Smell of food makes you feel ill or nauseated
- Sores in your mouth
- Swelling of hands and feet
- Taste changes
- Vaginal dryness - which can be relieved with a variety of personal lubricant products which are available in any drug store.
- Weight Gain
- Women's parts
For information about how long side effects, last, click here.
Keep track of your concerns and symptoms for doctor visits. To help, we provide:
- A Prioritizer tool to help keep track of questions and concerns. Before you go to the appointment, a push of a button reorders your questions and concerns into your priority to print and take with you.
- A Symptoms Diary to keep track of symptoms. A push of a button turns it into an easy-to-read graph.
For information ranging from questions to ask before agreeing to chemotherapy treatment, to after treatment, see the articles in "To Learn More."
- To help reduce the effect of chemotherapy on your taste buds, avoid eating a few hours before and after chemotherapy. For additional tips about changed taste buds, click here.
- Some people recommend avoiding favorite foods during during chemotherapy so you don’t develop a poor association with your favorite foods.
- Some people have found fasting helpful to make chemotherapy easier. Caution: Fasting can be dangerous. Consult with your oncologist before considering this idea.