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Long term side effects of chemotherapy

Most chemotherapy side effects are temporary and disappear once your treatment is over. But for some people chemotherapy can cause long term changes in the body. The changes may happen months or many years after the chemotherapy has finished.

Many people feel more tired than usual for a long time after chemotherapy treatment. This is most likely to happen after a lot of treatment, or very intensive treatment. For example, after high dose chemotherapy or if you are having a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. 

After intensive treatment, you are likely to have a lower resistance to infection for quite a long time. This will gradually get back to normal, but can take some months.

In some cases chemotherapy can cause infertility. There is information on infertility in the main chemotherapy section of CancerHelp UK.

Some chemotherapy drugs can cause long term problems with specific body organs. For example, there are drugs that can cause heart damage or lung damage. But cancer doctors are aware of this. If you are having one of these drugs, you will have tests before and during your treatment so your doctor can keep an eye on your reaction to the drug. If you have a heart condition, there may be some chemotherapy drugs your doctor won't use. Your doctors will also check you for these effects for some years after your treatment.

The most worrying long term side effect of some drugs is a risk of getting another cancer in the future. This is usually called a second cancer. For your own peace of mind, it is important to remember that this is a very small risk, and only occurs with only some chemotherapy drugs. Your doctor will talk to you about the specific risk with the drugs you are having. The risk of a second cancer is less of a risk to you than the cancer you are having treatment for.

There are many different chemotherapy drugs and they all have different side effects. If you are worried about long term effects from your treatment, ask your doctor or nurse specialist about the drugs you are having. Our reading list has details of books and factsheets about the different chemotherapy drugs, some of which are free. 

There is more about side effect of cancer drugs in the main treatment section of CancerHelp UK. There is an individual page for most cancer drugs in use, with detailed information about their likely side effects. The list is in alphabetical order. You can type the drug name in the search box at the top of any page.

The Department of Heath, NHS Improvement and Macmillan Cancer Support have set up the National Survivorship Initiative (NCSI) to look at the issues people have when they finish cancer treatment. They are looking at several areas including the long term side effects of treatment and the best way to assess people's needs. 

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Updated: 19 April 2013