10 Most Common Side Effects Of Chemotherapy

side effects of chemotherapy

While surviving cancer is one thing, living with the after effects of chemotherapy is a different ball game altogether. Chemotherapy is by far the most popular way of treating different types of cancers through drugs. It is the fastest way so far to kill the cancer cells which multiply rapidly throughout the affected organ and spread to the body.

Chemotherapy works to destroy the rapidly dividing cancer cells in the body but in the process, it also affects the healthy ones. Healthy cells in your blood, mouth, intestinal tract, nose, nails, vagina, and hair also divide rapidly and this can lead to side effects. However, they will repair themselves in due course of time, unlike the cancer cells.1


Though the thought of undergoing chemotherapy or chemo terrifies many but knowing about its side effects can better prepare you for cancer treatment. They can also help you in coping with chemotherapy side effects. Here are few of the most common side effects of chemotherapy everyone should know about.

1. Hair Loss Or Balding

This is the signature side effect of chemo for both men and women suffering from a variety of cancers. According to a study, as many as 66 percent of breast cancer patients reported having experienced hair loss.2


However, don’t fret as this is a short-term side effect of cancer chemotherapy. Weakened hair follicles will become strong again and your mane will be back. But hair loss is not the only change. Chemo can even impact hair color! One way to protect your tresses is by wearing cold caps. These tightly fitting hats are filled with gel chilled to between -15 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit that narrow the blood vessels beneath the scalp. They minimize the amount of chemotherapy drugs that reach the hair follicles. It may help some patients keep some or quite a bit of their hair during chemotherapy.3

2. Anemia

Chemo can also affect the fast-growing red blood cells in your body, leading to anemia. In fact, anemia has been observed in 30 to 90 percent of cancer patients. It can be corrected through either treating the underlying cause or providing supportive red blood cell transfusion. Erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs), with or without iron supplementation can also be administered. However, its use is now widely debated owing to its detrimental effects.4


3. Fatigue

Fatigue and anemia often go hand in hand as a side effect of chemo. The toll of oxidative stress and destruction of healthy cells results in fatigue, which is a major obstacle in maintaining normal daily activities and quality of life. Possible primary therapies include modification of the drug regimen, correction of metabolic abnormalities, and treatments for anemia, exercise, modification of activity and rest patterns, cognitive therapies, treating depression or insomnia, sleep hygiene approaches, and nutritional support. 5

Studies suggest that supplementing the diet with antioxidants can influence the response to chemotherapy as well as the development of side effects.6


4. Nausea and Vomiting

Despite the development of efficient antiemetic agents, nausea and vomiting are some of the common side effects of chemotherapy. It affects as many as 60 percent of patients. You many notice it as one of the first chemo treatment side effects.7

Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting involve several organs of the gastrointestinal tract as well as the peripheral and central nervous systems. It can be controlled with medications such as dopamine antagonists, lorazepam, metoclopramide, haloperidol, droperidol, olanzapine, dronabinol, nabilone, and gabapentin.8


5. Diarrhea

One of the side effects of chemotherapy for colon cancer and some other types of cancers is diarrhea. It has been known to cause severe morbidity and mortality, often leading to the discontinuation or reduction of chemo. In severe cases, the patient may require hospitalization; in-hospital care includes rehydration, antibiotic therapy, and octreotide.9

6. Reduced Heart Function

Cardiac issues have been observed as one of the long-term side effects of chemotherapy and radiation for lung cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, esophageal cancer and breast cancer in particular. Some structures and tissues in the heart can be damaged by chemotherapy and radiation, resulting in heart failure, myocardial ischemia, irregular heartbeat, hypertension, and thromboembolism.10


7. Fertility And Sexual Side Effects

Chemotherapy, radiation and certain surgeries for cancer can result in a gamut of fertility and sexual side effects in both men and women. Men might not be able to make normal sperm or ejaculate normally, while women may experience yeast infections, pain during sex, and absence of menstrual periods for months. Early menopause may be a side effect of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Men who have been treated for testicular, prostate, bladder, colorectal, and even head and neck cancers often have trouble getting erections. Unfortunately, some people won’t be able to have children, while children conceived during the course of chemo are very likely to have birth defects. If your white blood cell counts are extremely low, the American Cancer Society suggests you avoid sex to reduce chances of infection.11

8. Nerve Damage

Peripheral neuropathy is the feeling of weakness, numbness, and pain from nerve damage. You may notice pins-and-needles like sensation in your hands and feet, which is due to damage to your peripheral nerves. A cancer patient is more likely to experience chemotherapy-induced neuropathy if they have nerves previously damaged by diabetes, alcohol or inherited neuropathy.12


9. Fractures And Osteoporosis

Most chemotherapeutics reduce the bone mineral density (BMD), resulting in an increased risk for fractures by causing gonadal suppression.13 Women who have undergone chemotherapy for breast cancer stand higher chances of developing osteoporosis as a long-term side effect.14

10. ­Infections

Cancer and chemo can increase your chances of getting a variety of infections. Chemotherapy drugs kill off the healthy cells including white blood cells that are the foundation of our immune system. You may want to be extra diligent with hygiene and wash your hands often, use a sanitizer and even avoid crowded places to avoid infection. Get a flu shot and ask your family members to do the same. Based on your individual case, your doctor may suggest some medications and injections to keep infections at bay.15