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Breast cancer chemo side effects

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This page tells you about side effects of chemotherapy for breast cancer. You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Breast cancer chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy affects different people in different ways. Different chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects. Some people have few effects. Your doctor or specialist nurse can tell you what may happen, but can't tell beforehand exactly what treatment will be like for you.

Chemotherapy can lower the number of healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets you have. This can mean you are more likely to get infections, feel more tired than usual, or have bleeding problems.

Tiredness and weakness is the most common side effect of chemotherapy. It may continue for some months after your treatment ends. Other side effects can include feeling sick or being sick, hair loss or thinning, a sore mouth, diarrhoea or constipation, changes to your periods, and sore eyes.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have side effects. Often there are treatments that can help.

Long term side effects

If you have not had your menopause, you need to know that chemotherapy can affect your ability to get pregnant. Your periods may stop. They may start again from 6 months to a year after your treatment ends. Or they may never start again and you may have an early menopause. You may then have menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and sweats. 

There are ways of preserving fertility during treatment for some women.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating breast cancer section.

 

 

Why side effects happen

Side effects are the unwanted effects of any treatment. Chemotherapy drugs kill cells that are dividing. Cancer cells divide more often than normal cells. But some normal body cells divide quickly and so are also affected by chemotherapy. These include cells in your skin, hair, nails, the lining of your digestive system, and your blood cells. Unlike cancer cells, normal body tissues can recover. So you usually have a couple of weeks break between treatments. The break allows your normal body tissues to get over the effects of the chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy affects different people in different ways. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what may happen, but they can't tell beforehand exactly what the treatment will be like for you. Some people have more side effects than others. Many people lead normal lives during their treatment and can carry on working. Other people find they are very tired and have to take things more slowly.

Remember that not all chemotherapy drugs cause the same side effects and some people have very few.

 

General chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy has some general side effects. Your blood cells divide rapidly, so chemotherapy can lower the number of healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets you have. This can mean you

  • Are more likely to get infections
  • May be more tired than usual
  • Can be prone to nosebleeds and other bleeding problems

If you develop a temperature above 38°C or think you have an infection, it is very important to contact the hospital straight away. You may need urgent treatment with antibiotics. Your doctor or chemotherapy nurse will give you an emergency number to phone if you need to. There is detailed information about the effect of chemotherapy on your blood cells in the main chemotherapy section.

Tiredness (fatigue) is the most common side effect for people having chemotherapy. It may continue for some months after your treatment ends. How quickly you get back to normal will depend on your general health, on the amount of treatment you've had, and on other treatments you have had.

Other side effects of chemotherapy can include

You can use the links above to go to pages in the cancer drugs side effects section that tell you about coping with these effects.

Side effects may seem hard to bear at the time. But most of the effects disappear when your treatment ends.

 

Taking other medicines with chemotherapy

Always let your doctor know about any other medicines you are taking because some drugs can react with chemotherapy. Even some over the counter medicines, herbal medicines or complementary therapies may be harmful to take with chemotherapy.

 

Long term side effects

Sometimes chemotherapy causes long term side effects. You will probably feel tired for some time after your treatment has finished. For some people, it can take up to a year to get their energy back.

If you had not had your menopause before you had breast cancer, you need to know that chemotherapy can affect your ability to get pregnant. If you are still having periods, they may stop when you have chemotherapy. This depends on how near you are to the age when you would naturally start your menopause. Your periods may start again from 6 months to a year after your treatment finishes. Or they may never start again and you may have an early menopause. If you do continue to have periods, they may not be as regular as they were.

If your periods stop, it is because the treatment has stopped your ovaries producing female hormones. You may also have menopausal symptoms such as

  • Hot flushes and sweats
  • Mood changes

There is information about early menopause and infertility in the living with breast cancer section

We have information about hot flushes and sweats caused by a lowering of the amount of sex hormones in your body in our hormone symptoms section.

Some types of chemotherapy may cause a small increase in the risk of developing another cancer later in life. Your treatment team will tell you if this is the case with treatment you are having.

 

Specific side effects of the drugs

There is detailed information about breast cancer chemotherapy drugs in the cancer drugs section. The drugs include

We also have information about commonly used combination treatments such as 

But we've listed the most common side effects for each drug used for primary breast cancer below.

Cyclophosphamide

The most common side effects of this drug are

Fluorouracil

This commonly causes

Methotrexate

This drug can cause

Epirubicin and doxorubicin

These drugs are similar. The most common side effects include

Mitoxantrone

This drug can cause

Mitomycin C

This drug can cause

Taxotere (docetaxel)

This drug can cause

 

More information about chemotherapy

The cancer drugs side effects section tells you about the side effects of individual drugs and combination chemotherapies. There is also information about how to cope with the side effects. 

You can get your doctor or nurse to write down the names of your chemotherapy drugs so you can look them up for yourself. See the questions for your doctor page in this section for suggestions of questions to ask about chemotherapy.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

You can also ask your doctor or nurse if you can meet other patients who've had chemotherapy for breast cancer. Then you can chat about how they got on. 

Or you could contact a local support group to get in touch with other people with breast cancer. Some of the breast cancer organisations can put you in touch with your nearest support group. They can also give you more information about chemotherapy for breast cancer.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 2 August 2014