What are the possible side effects of chemotherapy?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Chemotherapy, using drugs to kill pancreatic cancer cells, may cause side effects. This is because some healthy cells in the body may also become damaged during chemotherapy. Side effects may include anemia; digestive problems such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and low appetite; hair loss; and fatigue. In addition, since chemotherapy can affect cells that grow quickly, such as those in your mouth and those that form hair and nails, you may see changes in these areas. Nervous systems problems, such as memory loss and dizziness, may also occur with certain types of chemotherapy. Be sure you talk to your doctor about the likely side effects of any chemotherapy you will be receiving.

Chemotherapy can cause unwanted reactions, called side effects, because most chemotherapy medicines can’t tell good cells from bad ones. They target all cells that divide quickly, like the following:

  • hair cells, making hair fall out
  • skin cells in the mouth, causing a sore mouth
  • red blood cells, causing people to feel weak and tired
  • blood platelets, making people bruise or bleed more easily
  • white blood cells, which means people can’t fight off germs well

Chemotherapy can also make people feel sick.

The healthy cells most likely to be affected by chemotherapy are found in bone marrow, the reproductive system, the digestive tract, and hair follicles. Your symptoms will depend on the kind and dose of medication you are taking. You may or may not experience fatigue, nausea, pain, hair loss, infection and/or anemia.

Chemotherapy drugs work by attacking cells that are dividing quickly, which is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow, the lining of the mouth and intestines, and the hair follicles, also divide quickly. These cells are also likely to be affected by chemotherapy, which can lead to side effects.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type and dose of drugs given and the length of time they are taken. General side effects of chemotherapy drugs can include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased chance of infections (due to low white blood cell counts)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (due to low blood platelet counts)
  • Fatigue (due to low red blood cell counts)
  • Fertility Problems

Most side effects are short-term and tend to go away after treatment is finished. There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. Do not hesitate to discuss any questions about side effects with the cancer care team.

You should report any side effects or changes you notice while getting chemotherapy to your medical team so that they can be treated promptly. In some cases, the doses of the chemotherapy drugs may need to be reduced or treatment may need to be delayed or stopped to prevent the effects from getting worse.

Nausea is a possible side effect of chemotherapy. We can give IV antiemetics to help with nausea during treatment, and prescribe anti-nauseas for the patient to take for the first two to three days after treatment. You may also combat fatigue by eating small meals throughout the day instead of three big meals. Other side effects may include hair loss, constipation or diarrhea.

Chemotherapy (chemo) not only weakens and destroys cancer cells at the site of the tumor, but throughout the body as well. Chemotherapy usually affects all fast-growing cells. Unfortunately, this means that chemo can unintentionally harm the development of normal cells such as your hair, nails, mouth and digestive tract.

The side effects caused by chemotherapy depends on the type of chemotherapy medicine prescribed and how many cycles you receive. The most common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Confusion, forgetfulness (“chemo brain”)
  • Decreased blood counts, sometimes with bruising, bleeding or infection
  • Sores inside your mouth
  • Numbness in your hands and feet
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased urgency to have a bowel movement or urinate

If you experience side effects, call your doctor right away. It is better to address side effects promptly; there are numerous medications available to help manage cancer treatment side effects.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.