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Side effects of bowel cancer chemotherapy

Men and women discussing bowel cancer

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

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Side effects of bowel cancer chemotherapy

Chemotherapy has some general side effects. It can lower the number of healthy blood cells you have. This can mean that you are more likely to get infections and you may be more tired than usual. You can also be prone to nosebleeds and other bleeding problems.

Other side effects of bowel cancer chemotherapy can include

  • Sickness
  • Diarrhoea
  • Sore eyes
  • A sore mouth
  • Hair loss or thinning
  • Changes to your periods (menstrual cycle)

 

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

 

 

General side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy has some general side effects. As well as killing cancer cells, chemotherapy drugs kill healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. Blood cells also divide rapidly, so chemotherapy can lower the number of healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets you have. This can mean that you

  • May be more tired than usual
  • Are more likely to get infections
  • 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 immediately. 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 information on how chemotherapy affects blood cells in our section on side effects of cancer drugs.

Tiredness or fatigue is the most common side effect for people having chemotherapy. Tiredness can reduce how much you are able to do. You may also feel weak and as though you have no energy. Tiredness may carry on 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 whether you have also had other treatments. 

There is information about how to cope with tiredness in our section on cancer fatigue.

Other side effects of bowel cancer chemotherapy can include

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

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

 

Bowel cancer chemotherapy drugs

The drugs doctors most often use to treat bowel cancer are

 

Fluorouracil (5FU) side effects

Most people cope well with 5FU and have few side effects. The more common side effects include

When you have 5FU continuously through a pump, it can cause reddening and soreness of the hands and feet. This is called hand and foot syndrome or palmar-plantar erythema. It happens to about 1 in 3 people having this treatment. The skin can begin to peel on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. For most people, this is reasonably mild and you can just carry on with the treatment. But if it gets bad, your doctor may lower your chemotherapy dose or suggest that you have a break from treatment until you have recovered.

There is more detailed information about 5FU side effects in our cancer drugs section.

 

Capecitabine (Xeloda) side effects

The effects of capecitabine are very similar to 5FU and may also include reddening and soreness of the hands and feet. This is called hand and foot syndrome or palmar-plantar erythema. The skin can begin to peel on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. For most people, this is reasonably mild and you can just carry on with the treatment. But if it gets bad, your doctor may lower the capecitabine dose or suggest you have a break from treatment until you recover.

There is more detailed information about capecitabine side effects in our cancer drugs section.

 

Raltitrexed (Tomudex) side effects

You may have this drug for advanced bowel cancer if you cannot have fluorouracil or capecitabine. This may be because you have heart problems such as angina.

Common side effects include


There is detailed information about raltitrexed side effects in our cancer drugs section.

 

Irinotecan side effects

Common side effects include

Some people have sweating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea while they are having the drug. To reduce these side effects, your nurse may give you a drug called atropine. You have this as an injection under the skin.

Diarrhoea after irinotecan can be a serious side effect. If you get diarrhoea a day or so after you have had your treatment, you should tell your doctor or chemotherapy nurse. You may need to take some anti diarrhoea medicine and your doctor may ask you to take an antibiotic if the diarrhoea gets worse. You can become dehydrated very quickly and so if you are worried contact your nurse or doctor at the hospital straight away. You may need to go in for fluids and antibiotics.

There is detailed information about irinotecan side effects in our cancer drugs section.

 

Oxaliplatin side effects

Common side effects include

  • Sickness
  • Numb lips
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Numbness and tingling of hands or feet

You get numbness and tingling because oxaliplatin affects your nerves. It is often worse when you are cold, but usually only lasts a few days after having the drug. It can become more of a problem the longer you are having treatment with oxaliplatin. This side effect can make it very difficult to do fiddly things such as doing up buttons. Some people find it hard to walk because the soles of their feet are numb. 

Tell your doctor or specialist nurse if you have any numbness or tingling, particularly if it doesn't go away. You may need to have a lower dose of oxaliplatin or stop having the drug for a time. You can usually carry on having the other chemotherapy drugs as part of your treatment. For some people, this side effect may be permanent.

There is more detailed information about oxaliplatin side effects in our cancer drugs section. And information about chemotherapy affecting the nerves in our cancer drugs side effects section.

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Updated: 21 August 2013