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.[^1]
It is difficult to tell what side-effects will be suffered. Of those listed below, it is unlikely an individual will suffer them all.[^2]
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.