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Side effects

Read about the common side effects of chemotherapy and what to look out for.

Drugs affect people in different ways. Not all patients have the same side effects with the same drug. Some people have very few side effects. It’s not possible to know how you’ll react until you have had that particular drug.

Common side effects

Side effects that are common with many chemotherapy drugs include:

  • a fall in the number of blood cells
  • feeling sick
  • diarrhoea
  • sore mouth and mouth ulcers
  • hair loss or thinning
  • feeling tired and run down

Not all these side effects happen with every drug. All the drugs have different side effects.

Ask your doctor or nurse about side effects for the chemotherapy drugs you will be having.

Blood tests

You will have regular blood tests to check your blood cell levels. If you are low on red blood cells, you may need a blood transfusion.

If you can't have a blood transfusion, you might have a drug called erythropoietin. This hormone encourages your body to make more red blood cells.

If you are low on white blood cells, you are more at risk of picking up infections. If your blood cell counts are low, you may have antibiotics to try to prevent infection.

You will have blood tests before each cycle of chemotherapy. If your white blood cell count is too low, your tretment will be delayed until your white cells have recovered.

Remember to contact your doctor or chemotherapy nurse straight away if you think you have an infection. If you develop a temperature of 38 degrees C or more, or you feel unwell, let the hospital know straightaway.

Feeling tired and run down

During chemotherapy, some people are able to carry on almost as normal but many become very tired. The further through your course, the more likely you are to feel tired and run down.

If this happens to you, take things more slowly. If you feel like having a lie down or putting your feet up, then you probably need to.

Don't struggle to do everything you did before. You will probably get over the treatment more quickly in the long run if you don't overdo it.

All these side effects should begin to get better when the treatment is over. Remembering this may make it easier to cope.

Side effects of chemoradiotherapy

Concurrent chemoradiotherapy means having a course of chemotherapy at the same time as a course of radiotherapy. The side effects of this treatment are the same as for chemotherapy and radiotherapy on their own. But some are likely to be more severe.

In particular, you are likely to get a very sore mouth and throat. For some people, the mouth is so sore that they can't swallow. If this happens to you, you are likely to need a feeding tube so you can get enough liquid and calories inside you. You will also have painkillers. Doctors often use a strong painkiller such as morphine to treat mouth soreness in this situation.

When your mouth and throat are very sore, you have to be particularly careful about infection. Do try to keep your mouth clean and follow the advice of your doctor and dentist. At the first sign of infection (particularly high temperature with chills, a sore chest or cough), contact the hospital. You may need antibiotics through a drip.

Last reviewed: 
31 Jan 2018
  • External Beam Therapy
    Peter Hoskin
    OUP Oxford, 30 Aug 2012 - Medical

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

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