Does It Hurt to Receive Chemotherapy?

If you're getting ready to undergo chemotherapy, a very common question is, just how painful is chemotherapy? This is a common question because of the way the media portrays cancer treatment and chemotherapy, and the language often used to describe it.

Each person's experience with chemotherapy is different. You may have side effects or discomfort, and some people may even have pain. But the anticipation of the unknown is often the most anxiety-producing, so it can help to learn what you might be able to expect.

Read on to find out more about what you might expect from chemotherapy.

Woman about to start chemotherapy
Caiaimage / Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Insertion of the Intravenous Catheter

There is little pain associated with chemotherapy, other than the initial intravenous (IV) access to your veins.

If you are receiving chemotherapy intravenously, you may experience some discomfort when the needle is inserted into your skin, and a thin, flexible tube (called a catheter) is eased into your vein. The needle will not be left in your arm but is simply there to direct the catheter into place. Once the needle is removed, the drugs can be directly placed into your bloodstream.

Some people may need longer-term options such as a port-a-cath or PICC line. There are inserted into a vein and can be kept there for a few weeks or even months. With these, a needle doesn’t have to be inserted and removed at every visit.

Port-a-caths are the more permanent of the two options and require a local anesthetic. You may feel sore and swollen around the area where the port was put for one to two days after the 30-minute procedure.

For the most part, people undergoing IV chemotherapy report little discomfort. If you are nervous about any pain you may experience, you can ask your healthcare provider to prescribe a numbing patch. These patches usually take 20 to 30 minutes to take effect.

Discomfort During an Infusion

The actual chemotherapy process is usually painless. Some chemo drugs may cause a slight burning as they enter your vein. For example, if the IV is in your hand or wrist, you may feel the burning sensation moving up your arm. This is perfectly normal and will ease as the infusion progresses.

Let your nurse know if you feel any pain or discomfort during a session. In some cases, the location of your cancer can make it difficult to sit or lie in one place for very long. Your catheter can become dislodged, causing skin irritation.

After Effects of Chemotherapy

In the days and weeks following chemotherapy, you may experience some unpleasant side effects of the chemotherapy drugs. Some of the more common include:

  • Fatigue
  • Appetite loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Chemo Fever
  • Nerve irritation (also called "neuropathy")
  • Deep aching in your legs and arms (often experienced with drugs like Taxol)
  • Mouth sores
  • Bleeding gums

Many of the symptoms can be relieved with medication or other remedies. Please talk with your treatment team about the side effects you are having to help you find remedies that work best for you.

Summary

Prior to starting chemotherapy, you may be nervous about any anticipated pain with it. The good news is that for many people, pain with chemotherapy is infrequent. You may feel a slight discomfort with the needle stick or if the IV needs to be adjusted, but letting your chemo nurse know about this can help resolve any issues.

A Word From Verywell

If you are in pain, let someone know immediately. There is no shame in telling your care team that you are in pain. You are dealing with enough not to take advantage of every reasonable means to lessen the discomfort you are feeling.

On the other hand, if you are unable to cope and feel completely overwhelmed by what you’re going through, you need to speak with someone who can help, be it your healthcare provider, a therapist, or a cancer support group. 

You don't have to live with any pain during treatment. Please let someone know if you're in pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does chemotherapy hurt so much?

    Chemotherapy itself should not hurt. If it does, there may be something wrong with your IV placement.

  • What is worse, chemo or radiation?

    There is no "worse" - treatment is treatment, and reframing how you see your treatment can help with mentally preparing for it. Chemo and radiation are two different types of treatment that can have two different sets of potential side effects, especially depending where you get the radiation. If you have concerns about handling chemo and/or radiation, talk with your treatment team.

  • Does chemo make your joints hurt?

    Joint pain, or arthralgia, can be caused by certain kinds of chemotherapy drugs, including bleomycin, paclitaxel, cladribine, and L-asparaginase.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed
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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy: what it is, how it helps.

  3. American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy side effects.

  4. Chemocare. Joint pain (arthralgias).