Side Effects of Chemotherapy

The side effects of chemotherapy differ from person to person. Chemo drugs kill not only cancer cells but normal, healthy cells as well. Damage to healthy cells is why chemotherapy causes side effects. Not everyone will experience the same side effects or to the same degree. They depend on the type of cancer, location, drugs, and dose, and a person's general health.

An Oncology Patient Rests While Receiving Intravenous Chemotherapy

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Why Side Effects Happen

Chemotherapy works on active cells. Active cells are cells that are growing and dividing into more of the same type of cell. Cancer cells are active, but so are some healthy cells. Cells commonly affected by chemotherapy are those in the bone marrow, mouth, digestive system, reproductive system, and hair follicles.

Most chemotherapy treatments inhibit cell division, and, therefore, will affect not only cancer cells but also normal cells that undergo active division like cells of the gastro-intestinal tract, for example.

What Are the Side Effects?

Certain classes of chemotherapy drugs are more frequently associated with side effects.

Common Side Effects

Dry Skin

Chemotherapy agents may induce dryness and peeling of the skin. A study involving chemotherapy patients receiving hormonal treatments reported dry skin as the most common side-effect (60.86%). To manage this side effect, stay hydrated, avoid exposure to a harsh climate, and avoid personal soaps and detergents without artificial dyes or fragrances when possible. Wear protective gloves while doing tasks such as household dishes or gardening, and use moisturizing body oil after showering.


Rashes appear as discoloration of the skin, and can be smooth or flat. Often, rashes cause irritation such as itching. Those with rashes as a result of their chemotherapy treatment should stay hydrated, avoid exposure to a harsh climate, and avoid personal soaps and detergents without artificial dyes or fragrances when possible. They may also want to opt for loose-fitting, cotton fabrics that may be more comfortable and avoid excessively hot baths. Colloidal oatmeal suspensions can be found in a variety of products, such as available in bath soaps. Studies have demonstrated that colloidal oatmeal can help with skin inflammation.


Fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer treatment. It can be caused by a variety of reasons, such as the death of healthy cells and psychological stress. Maintain a healthy lifestyle to the extent possible. For example, if you do not have the energy to go for a walk, discuss developing seated exercises with your provider. Stay hydrated and keep up with whole foods.


Chemotherapy drugs can trigger the chemotherapy receptor zone (CTZ), which can cause nausea. Avoid foods with a strong smell (such as anchovies) and greasy foods. Eat small meals and rest after each meal. Consume beverages at room temperature. Your doctor may be able to help prescribe a medication to help with nausea. Hydration is very important because nausea may induce vomiting, which can lead to dehydration.


Constipation occurs when bowel movements are infrequent, dry, and hard. Constipation can occur as a result of cancer itself, or as the result of cancer therapies, or a combination. Staying hydrated can help soften stools. FIber, stimulant laxatives, or enemas are potential treatments. Auricular acupressure was found to be effective in reducing constipation in one study.

Hair Loss

Certain drugs have been deemed more likely to cause hair loss than others. Hormonal therapies are most associated with hair thinning. Some people choose to purchase a wig, and you can check to see if your insurance company will cover the cost. If you choose to forgo a wig, stock up on a nice selection of hats and/or headscarves! Some companies donate hats and headscarves for chemotherapy patients. Programs like Look Better, Feel Better help people adjust to changes in their appearance through support groups and beauty guides.


Chemotherapy may damage the cells that line your intestines and cause loose stools. In certain cases, you may need to have IV therapy for remedial hydration. Diarrhea can cause complications such as renal failure and electrolyte disorders. Drinking beverages at room temperature and avoiding greasy, fatty foods can help. Remember the acronym BRAT: It stands for bananas, rice, apples, and toast. These are foods that are generally well-tolerated by an upset stomach.

Sexual or Reproductive Issues

People going through chemotherapy may experience erectile dysfunction (ED), or vaginal dryness.

When to Seek Help

If you have any sudden vision changes, experience shortness of breath, have sudden, sharp pain in the chest, have excessive diarrhea beyond what is expected as a side effect, or prolonged quickening of the pulse, you should seek immediate medical help.

Long-Term Effects/Late Effects

Most side effects go away after treatment, but some of them continue, come back, or develop later. A number of long-term effects are associated with chemotherapy treatment.

Cardiac Concerns

Those who have treatment for left-sided breast cancer may experience damage to the heart and coronary arteries. It is important to speak with your oncologist about these concerns. A respiratory grating is a technique used for left-sided breast cancer that can help mitigate these effects.


Many people feel fatigued long after their chemotherapy has finished. It is important to share this with your provider. Frustrating cognitive effects, sometimes referred to as chemobrain, can be very frustrating, but the symptoms usually improve over time.


Infertility following treatment varies by treatment type and dose. It is important to let your care team know if you want to have children or may want to. They can discuss options with you such as sperm preservation, embryo preservation, and freezing eggs.

Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy may present as numbness and burning in your feet and hands and constipation. Some drugs that are more likely to cause peripheral neuropathy are Taxotere (docetaxel) and Taxol (paclitaxel). The medications Platinol (cisplatin), Oncovin (vincristine), and Novelbine (vinorelbine), can also result in peripheral neuropathy.

Hearing Loss

Platinol (cisplatin) is commonly linked to hearing loss (ototoxicity).


This is the most common delayed effect of chemotherapy. Osteoporosis can make bones more vulnerable to fracture and lead to bone loss.

Pulmonary fibrosis

Chemotherapy can lead to pulmonary fibrosis in certain people, especially when chemotherapy is combined with radiation to the chest region.

Kidney and Bladder Effects

Certain chemotherapy medications, such as cisplatin, can cause damage to the kidneys and bladder. This can result in a decreased ability of your kidneys to filter your blood. Damage to the bladder can also occur and may be temporary or permanent. Symptoms of bladder irritation may include pain or urgency with urination, or blood in your urine. People on chemotherapy often receive steroids, which can hasten the development of cataracts in some people.

A Word From Verywell

Concerns about side effects prior to beginning treatment for chemotherapy are normal. There is a wealth of information available on the specific symptoms associated with personal factors and specific chemotherapy agents. Every treatment path is unique. Maintaining an optimistic attitude and relying on your support system can help to significantly reduce anxiety. Although it is important to take time to research your care, it is also important to take time to disconnect and relax.

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