Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy (chemo) targets cells that grow quickly, like cancer cells, and kills them off. Unfortunately, chemo can’t target cancer cells only, so it may kill healthy cells as well, causing side effects.

What are the side effects of chemo?

Everyone reacts differently to chemo. Some people experience more severe side effects, while others find it pretty manageable. Your experience with chemo can be affected by other factors such as your level of fitness and any other health conditions you may have.

Here are some things you might experience:

  • hair thinning or loss

  • fatigue​ or extreme tiredness

  • more bleeding and bruising than normal
    (due to low blood counts)

  • changes in your nails

  • watery eyes or a runny nose

  • loss of appetite

  • bowel issues
    (usually looser bowel movements)

  • changes in taste

  • numbness or tingling
    in your hands and feet

  • fluid build-up in your body
    (fluid retention)

If any of these side effects become a problem for you, please talk to your doctor, nurse or care team to get the help you need.

Most people do not get nausea or vomiting with this chemotherapy. Your health care team will provide you with medications to help prevent and control this.

New developments are making chemo side effects more manageable, allowing you to maintain a good quality of life while being treated.

What can you do?

Getting good rest, eating well, and having an exercise program are key. Your health care team may be able to refer you to a cancer support exercise program or an exercise physiologist to create or look over your exercise plan. They can also recommend a dietitian to make sure you’re eating the right foods.

Watch for infections

Going through chemo can mean your body is not able to fight off infections very well. This is because the number of white blood cells that help fight infections will be lowered by the chemo drugs. If the number of white blood cells becomes very low, you could get a serious infection.

Watch out for symptoms of infection like a temperature (fever), sore throat or chills.

If you have a fever over 38°C or feel generally unwell, call your cancer treatment team or doctor immediately (24 hours a day) or go at once to your nearest hospital emergency room and tell them you are on chemotherapy.

If you're feeling very ill from chemo, call the contact numbers your cancer care team would have given you to reach them during the day or emergency contacts during the evenings. If you cannot reach anyone, call an ambulance on 999 or go to the nearest hospital emergency room. Do not wait.

What's next?

Now that you've read up on Side effects of chemotherapy, here are some related articles to explore as you continue to build your knowledge and understanding of this topic.
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