Decorative image

Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs affect people in different ways. The side effects vary from person to person. 

The type of drug will affect the side effects you might have. Some people have few side effects, while others will have more. 

Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if any of your side effects get severe or if you have signs of infection including a temperature above 38C.

General side effects of chemotherapy

Signs of an infection include headaches, aching muscles, a cough, a sore throat, pain passing urine, or feeling cold and shivery.

Contact your treatment centre straight away if you have any of these signs or if your temperature goes above 38C. Severe infections can be life threatening.

Chemotherapy reduces the number of white blood cells in the blood. This increases your risk of infections. White blood cells help fight infections.

Your white blood cell level begins to fall throughout your chemotherapy treatment. Then it gradually goes up again.

When the level is very low it is called neutropenia (pronounced new-troh-pee-nee-ah).

You have antibiotics if you develop an infection. You might have them as tablets or as injections into the bloodstream (intravenously). To have them into your bloodstream you need to go into hospital.

You might notice you:

  • bruise more easily
  • have nosebleeds
  • have bleeding gums when you brush your teeth

This is due to a drop in the number of platelets that help clot your blood.

If your platelets get very low you may have lots of tiny red spots or bruises on your arms or legs called petechiae.

Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you have petechiae.

You have a platelet transfusion if your platelet count is very low. It is a drip of a clear fluid containing platelets. It takes about 15 to 30 minutes. The new platelets start to work right away. 

Feeling or being sick can be severe. It can start a few hours after treatment and last for a few days. Anti sickness injections and tablets can control it. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel sick. You may need to try different anti sickness medicines to find one that works.

Contact your doctor or nurse straight away if you’ve been sick more than once in a day.

Tips

  • Avoid eating or preparing food when you feel sick.
  • Avoid fried foods, fatty foods or foods with a strong smell.
  • Drink plenty of liquid to stop you from getting dehydrated.
  • Relaxation techniques help control sickness for some people.
  • Ginger can help – try it as crystallised stem ginger, ginger tea or ginger ale.
  • Fizzy drinks help some people when they are feeling sick.

You are likely to feel very tired during your treatment. It tends to get worse as the treatment goes on. You might also feel weak and lack energy.

After a while you may need to sleep for some time during the day. Rest when you need to.

Tiredness gets better once you finish treatment but it can carry on for some months or years.

Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, for example exercise. Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It is important to balance exercise with resting.

Drink plenty of fluids if you have diarrhoea so you don't get dehydrated. Ask your nurse for cream to put around your back passage if the skin gets sore in that area. 

Let your doctor or nurse know if the diarrhoea becomes severe or continues for more than a few days. They can give you medicines to help.

Your mouth and throat might get sore. It may be painful to swallow drinks or food. You will have mouth washes to keep your mouth healthy.

You can have painkillers to reduce the soreness. Take them half an hour before meals to make eating easier.

Tell your doctor or nurse if your throat is sore.

You could lose all your hair. This includes your eyelashes, eyebrows, underarm, leg and sometimes pubic hair. It usually starts gradually within 2 to 3 weeks after treatment begins.

Your hair will grow back once your chemotherapy treatment has finished. This can take several months and your hair is likely to be softer. It can also grow back a different colour or be curlier than before.

Tips

  • Ask about getting a wig before you start treatment so you can match the colour and texture of your real hair.
  • You could choose a wig for a whole new look.
  • Think about having your hair cut short before your treatment starts.
  • Some people shave their hair off completely so they don't have to cope with their hair falling out.
  • Wear a hairnet at night so you won't wake up with hair all over your pillow.

Chemotherapy drugs

Last reviewed: 
16 Oct 2014
  • Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.