What are chemotherapy side-effects?
Chemotherapy — often abbreviated to chemo or CTX — is a cancer treatment that uses anti-cancer drugs to fight the disease. Chemotherapy is very common and is used to treat most types of cancer, both as a cure and as a method of improving the prognosis.
Chemotherapy can result in a wide-range of side-effects. Cancer cells are characterised by their tendency to divide rapidly; chemotherapy therefore fights the disease by attacking fast-dividing cells. Unfortunately, healthy cells that divide quickly are also targeted, resulting in adverse side-effects. Although there is no way to prevent the onset of side-effects altogether, there are methods of managing them that can lessen their worst symptoms.
Common chemotherapy side-effects
Chemotherapy side-effects differ from person to person, depending on the type of cancer that is being treated, the drug that is being administered, the length of the course and the general health of the individual.
It is difficult to tell what side-effects will be suffered. Of those listed below, it is unlikely an individual will suffer them all.
Fatigue (tiredness) is chemotherapy’s most common side-effect. Those undergoing chemotherapy often feel generally sluggish and may be unable to carry out everyday tasks or work. Fatigue may continue once the treatment is over; intensive chemotherapy weakens the body, meaning full recovery can take a long time. The best way to combat fatigue is to try and lead a healthy lifestyle and get plenty of rest.
Vomiting and nausea
Vomiting or nausea is common to those undergoing chemotherapy. It can be managed with anti-sickness drugs that can be prescribed by a doctor. It should be noted, however, that these drugs can also have their own side-effects.
Hair loss is common but won’t affect all individuals. The head is the most common location for hair loss, though other regions of the body can also be affected. In almost all cases the hair will grow back once the chemotherapy has been completed.
By lowering the amount of red blood cells in the body, chemotherapy can also result in anaemia. Symptoms of anaemia can include fatigue, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and paleness of complexion. Treatments for anaemia differ according to its seriousness, meaning individuals should be sure to consult their doctor to find out their options.
Loss of appetite
Those going through chemotherapy often experience a loss of appetite while undergoing treatment. Individuals should try to eat what they can and ensure they drink a large amount of fluids.
Problems with sleep, or insomnia, are common during chemotherapy. To help with this, stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco should be avoided and a regular sleep routine should be maintained.
Sex and fertility issues
Chemotherapy may lower an individual’s sex drive and result in reduced fertility in both men and women. If there are concerns about infertility, options such as IVF and egg/sperm banking can be explored.
Chemotherapy can result in a large amount of emotional stress. This stress can take the form of anxiety and can develop into depression. To lessen this side-effect, those going through chemotherapy may consider attending cancer support groups and seek a professional opinion on other treatment options.
Bruising and bleeding
Chemotherapy can often reduce the number of platelet cells in the blood. This can result in severe bleeding when cut, skin that bruises easily, nosebleeds and bleeding gums. Treatments to improve platelet cell count are available. These include corticosteroid drugs and blood transfusions.
Diarrhea or constipation
Diarrhea or constipation can be a common side-effect in the early stages of chemotherapy. If the problem persists, sufferers should consult their doctor and think about dietary changes. A nutritious diet rich in cereals, grains, fruit and vegetables is recommended.
Mouth and throat problems
Chemotherapy can result in mouth and throat ulcers or sores, also known as mucositis. These ulcers can be painful and result in difficulty eating and drinking. They can also become easily infected. If necessary, doctors can prescribe painkillers or other appropriate treatments.
Skin and nail problems
Dry, itchy, discoloured or sore skin can result from chemotherapy. Nails can also become brittle or flaky. Ointments and creams can be prescribed to help.
For reasons that aren’t completely clear, chemotherapy can also result in short-term memory loss and an inability to concentrate properly. This side-effect usually dissipates once the treatment is complete. Setting reminders and keeping written records can help.
More serious chemotherapy side-effects
Some side-effects of chemotherapy are less common but far more serious than those listed above.
Individuals undergoing chemotherapy are more at risk of developing osteoporosis, a disease that thins and weakens the bones. Women, particularly older women (over the age of 50) and individuals with breast cancer, are most at risk of osteoporosis. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D lessens the risk of developing the disease. If osteoporosis is developed, treatment options are available.
In rare cases, chemotherapy can lead to heart problems. The symptoms of this may include a rapid or irregular heartbeat, fatigue, chest pain, coughing, dizziness and breathing problems. In extreme cases, these heart problems may lead to a heart attack. If an individual experiences any of these symptoms, they should contact their doctor immediately.
Anti-cancer drugs used in chemotherapy can in rare cases lead to eye problems including cataracts, conjunctivitis, dry-eye syndrome, glaucoma and photophobia.
Thorough washing of the hands and the avoidance of unnecessary touching of the eyes can reduce the risk of eye problems.
Long-term side-effects of chemotherapy
The majority of chemotherapy side-effects will disappear soon after the treatment has finished. However, some can be more long lasting and others develop long after the chemotherapy has been finished.
The anti-cancer drugs used in chemotherapy can lead to long-term problems in organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys and bladder. To lessen the chances of developing these problems, doctors will check an individual's medical history before administering the drugs, and avoid uncomplimentary drugs accordingly.
Risk of second cancer
Some chemotherapy drugs have been linked to causing a second cancer of a different type. It is important to realise that this is very rare and that doctors will avoid the use of these drugs if at all possible. They will also consult the individual about the risks before going forward with the treatment.
Mayo Clinic. “Can chemotherapy side-effects increase the risk of heart disease?” October 13, 2015. Accessed June 26, 2017. ↩