Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment given to destroy cancer cells.
Cancer cells grow and divide more rapidly than normal cells. Chemotherapy attacks these rapidly growing cells throughout the body.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given in the following ways:
Chemotherapy works by attacking all rapidly growing cells in the body. This means it can affect healthy fast-growing cells too. These cells are found in the digestive system, bone marrow, skin and hair. Because chemotherapy affects these cells, there are some common side effects for chemotherapy.
See the below side effects for more information on the cause and management of each side effect. Because every patient is unique, not everyone will have the same side effects. Talk to your doctor about possible side effects related to your chemotherapy treatment.
Chemotherapy can affect your body’s bone marrow. Bone marrow is where your body makes red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Because chemotherapy is designed to attack fast-growing cells, it can cause a decrease in the amount of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets in your body.
Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. They contain a protein called hemoglobin which helps them carry the oxygen away from the lungs to the rest of the body. When there are not enough red blood cells in the body to carry the oxygen, you can feel tired, weak, dizzy or short of breath. This is called anemia.
If you become anemic, there are some ways to help manage the symptoms of anemia.
White blood cells help defend your body against infection. During chemotherapy, you could be at an increased risk for developing an infection if your white blood cell count becomes too low.
There are many different types of white blood cells. One type of white blood cell is called a neutrophil. When your neutrophil count becomes low, it is called neutropenia.
If you develop neutropenia, it is important to take steps to prevent an infection.
Diarrhea is when your bowel movements become loose or watery. Your bowels may also move more frequently with diarrhea. Certain drugs, like chemotherapy or drugs used to treat constipation, can cause diarrhea. Infections can also cause diarrhea.
Here are some ways to help manage your diarrhea:
Fatigue is often a side effect from a cancer treatment. You may feel physically and emotionally tired. Fatigue can be caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It can also be caused by medication, anemia, changes in your appetite or diet, pain, lack of sleep and stress.
Here are some ways to manage your fatigue:
Chemotherapy can cause hair loss, also known at alopecia. It affects all of the hair on your body, including the hair on your head, face, arms, under arms, legs and pubic area.
Hair loss can be different for each patient. Some patients may have thinning while others may lose all of their hair completely. Hair loss usually starts two weeks after your first treatment, and your scalp may be tender during this time.
Hair usually starts growing back two to three months after you have completed chemotherapy treatment. It may come back a different texture or color. For example, in some cases it comes back curly instead of straight or a lighter color versus an earlier darker color.
Hair loss can be the most difficult part of treatment for some patients. There are some ways to manage your hair loss throughout the chemotherapy process.
Chemotherapy can affect the cells in the lining of your mouth and around your throat because, like cancer, they are the fastest growing cells. Some possible side effects include mouth sores, pain in your mouth or gums, dry mouth, infections and taste changes.
If you develop any of these side effects during your treatment, there are some ways to help manage the symptoms.
Chemotherapy may cause nausea and vomiting. Nausea is when you feel sick to your stomach or your stomach feels uneasy. Vomiting is when you throw up the contents of your stomach through your mouth. Nausea and vomiting can happen during or after your chemotherapy treatment. You may also experience nausea before your treatment. This is called anticipatory nausea.
There are medications available to help prevent and treat nausea and vomiting. These medications are called anti-emetics or anti-nausea drugs. You will receive these medications before your treatment. Your doctor may also have you take them for a certain number of days after your treatment or as needed. Your doctor may also prescribe more than one type of anti-nausea medication for you to take.
Here are some ways to help prevent and treat nausea and vomiting:
Not all types of chemotherapy cause nausea or vomiting. It can vary depending on the type of drug, how much of the drug you are getting and how you will be receiving it. Ask your doctor if nausea is a common side effect from the chemotherapy drug you will be receiving, and be sure to tell your doctor or nurse if your anti-nausea medication is not working.
Some types of chemotherapy can affect your nervous system. The nervous system controls most of your body’s organs and tissues including the brain and spinal cord. It also controls your sensory organs responsible for sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.
Some possible nervous system side effects include numbness, burning or tingling in the hands or feet, muscle weakness, muscle aches, dizziness, clumsiness or loss of balance, difficulties picking up objects, vision changes and hearing changes.
If you develop any nervous system changes, there are some ways to help manage your symptoms.
Nervous system side effects usually get better over time, but some side effects may be permanent. Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse right away if you develop any symptoms of nervous system changes or problems.
It’s possible that chemotherapy can affect the way your brain functions during and after treatment. Some of the functions the treatment can affect are memory and concentration. It can also affect the way you think. Sometimes you will hear these changes referred to as “chemo-brain.”
Talk with your doctor if you experience any confusion, memory changes or problems with concentration. Being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment can cause big changes in your life. It’s normal for patients and their loved ones to experience a wide range of emotions including anger, sadness and anxiety.
Here are some ways to help cope with the emotional side effects from treatment:
Chemotherapy may damage the fast-growing cells in your skin and nails. It can cause changes like dryness, itching, acne, sensitivity to light and cracked or brittle nails. Sometimes your nails may become darker, develop ridges or start to loosen from the nail bed. Most of the time these nail changes are not permanent, but it does take some time for the nails to grow back out.
Here are some ways to help manage your skin and nail changes:
Chemotherapy may affect a person’s sexual organs and the way they function. It can affect the ability to impregnate or become pregnant. This is called infertility. Chemotherapy can decrease the number of eggs in your ovaries, or it can decrease your sperm count. These decreases in eggs and sperm can cause infertility.
Chemotherapy can cause a decrease in the amount of hormones your ovaries produce. This can lead to early menopause and cause symptoms of menopause including hot flashes, vaginal dryness, irritability, irregular menstrual periods or stoppage of menstrual periods.
Chemotherapy can also cause a decrease in other hormones, specifically testosterone. This can lead to a decrease in sexual desire and can affect the ability to achieve and maintain an erection.
For everyone, the emotional and physical stress from cancer and its treatment can affect a persons interest in sex and sexual activity.
Here are some ways to help manage sexual changes from cancer and its treatment:
Remember, not all patients will experience sexual changes during their treatment. You may experience different side effects based on the type of treatment you are receiving, your age or other side effects you may be experiencing. Talk with your doctor about possible sexual changes related to your treatment.
During your cancer treatment, your primary care physician will continue to remain an integral part of your health care team and will work together with our providers to provide you with the best care possible.
For conditions overseen by your primary care physician and other specialists, such as diabetes or hypertension, please contact their offices so their teams can continue to manage your care.
For our patients receiving chemotherapy, please call our office if you develop any of the following symptoms:
Go to the closest emergency department if you develop any of the following symptoms:
Hormone therapy is another form of systemic treatment used to fight cancer. This specific type of treatment is gravely different from the hormone therapy used to manage the symptoms of menopause. Hormone therapy used in cancer treatment works by either using hormones or hormone-blocking agents to attack cancer cells. It is also used to reduce the chance of disease recurrence and to manage symptoms associated with the disease.
Hormone therapy can be given alone or in combination with other treatments, such as before surgical or radiation therapy, after chemotherapy treatment or to help slow progression of disease. Hormone therapy can be given three different ways.
Side effects from hormone therapy can vary as widely as those with any other drug. However, each person’s response to treatment is multifactorial including items such as overall health status, comorbidities (having two chronic diseases or conditions at the same time), specific disease type/stage/location and other medications taken. Your health care team will tell you about the potential side effects, both common and uncommon, as part of your chemotherapy education. Certain therapies may cause short-term side effects during or after treatment, including:
Long-term side effects are also dependent on the specific treatment you are receiving. It is critical that if you experience any side effects that you communicate them to your health care team.
Your physician will inform you if you are a candidate for hormone therapy. This will be based on your specific cancer, the stage of the disease and if hormones and your overall health status affect the tumor.
Immunotherapy, sometimes referred to as biotherapy or biologic therapy, is a cancer treatment method that uses an individuals’ immune system to attack cancer cells. There are different types of immunotherapy, listed below, that use different vehicles for eradicating or slowing growth of cancer cells. Certain types of immunotherapy work by boosting a person’s immune system to stimulate the body’s natural ability to fight disease. Other variations work by introducing artificial or chemically engineered viruses that are injected into the body to destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be used alone or in combination of other cancer treatment methods. This is determined by specific disease type and stage and at the discretion of your oncologist.
Side effects from immunotherapy can vary as widely as those with any other drug. However, each person’s response to treatment is multifactorial, including items such as overall health status, comorbidities (having two chronic diseases or conditions at the same time), specific disease type/stage/location and other medications taken. Your health care team will tell you about the potential side effects, both common and uncommon, as part of your chemotherapy education. Certain therapies may cause short-term side effects during or after treatment, including:
Immunotherapy is most effective in certain types of cancers, but not all. There are many clinical trials testing the efficacy of a wide variety of immunologic agents that you may be qualified for. Ask your physician about the clinical trials available, and if your individual case is one that is eligible for treatment with immunotherapy.
Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that kills cancer cells by sending high doses of radiation directly to the area where the cancer is or was located prior to surgery. Radiation can be used to shrink a tumor, to treat the surgical site after a tumor has been removed or to decrease symptoms, like pain. It may also be given along with chemotherapy treatments.
Radiation therapy may be given externally (outside the body) or internally (inside the body). A machine delivers external radiation. The machine is controlled by a radiation therapist and aimed directly at the area to be treated. The procedure is similar to having an X-ray taken.
Internal radiation is given inside the body. It may be placed directly into or near the cancer in the form of seeds or capsules. It may also be given in a liquid form by mouth or by IV therapy. Internal radiation delivers higher doses of radiation in a shorter period compared to external radiation.
External radiation is most often given five days a week, Monday through Friday, for up to six weeks. This schedule is established among your treatment team.
Side effects from radiation therapy can be different for each patient and may vary depending on which part of the body is treated. However, some common side effects from radiation therapy include:
It is critical that if you experience any side effects with your treatment that you communicate them to your health care team.
Stay informed of health tip, trends, recipes & more.
Viewing this content requires you to be 18 years or older to view.
Are you 18 or over?