Managing side effects for ALL
Chemotherapy drugs affect both leukaemia cells and healthy fast- growing cells. This can cause side effects such as nausea, hair loss and fatigue. Side effects vary depending on the drugs, but most are temporary and there are ways to prevent or reduce them. This section discusses some common side effects of treatment for acute leukaemia.
Learn more about:
- Effects on the blood
- Other common side effects
Most side effects are short term, but some may be permanent. Side effects tend to gradually improve once treatment stops and the normal, healthy cells recover. Most side effects can be managed.
Some side effects from chemotherapy may not show up for many months or years. These are called late effects. Before treatment starts, talk to your doctor about whether you are at risk of developing late effects from your treatment and what you can do to help prevent them. After treatment, it is important to see your GP for regular health checks.
Tell your treatment team about your side effects or anything unusual you experience. Check with your doctor before using ibuprofen, aspirin or other medicines, including herbal medicines. These may affect how the chemotherapy works and may make side effects worse.
Effects on the blood
Chemotherapy can lower the number of platelets in your blood. This is called thrombocytopenia, and it means you will bruise and bleed more easily from cuts and scrapes. You may also have nosebleeds or bleeding gums. Women who are menstruating will be given drugs to stop monthly periods and prevent blood loss while platelet counts are low. Your doctor may recommend you have a platelet transfusion to help raise your platelet count.
The combination of chemotherapy drugs, as well as the leukaemia itself, will lower your levels of the white blood cells called neutrophils. This is known as neutropenia and it can make it harder for your body to fight infections. Viruses such as colds, flu and COVID-19 may be easier to catch and harder to shake off, and scratches or cuts may get infected more easily.
To speed up the production of new white blood cells, your doctor may give you injections of a growth factor drug called granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (G-CSF). See the table below for some ways to reduce your risk of getting an infection.
The level of your red blood cells may drop (anaemia), causing you to feel tired and breathless. This can be treated with blood transfusions. However, some people feel fatigued for weeks or months after cancer treatment, even once their blood count returns to normal.
To manage this, plan activities for the time of day you feel most energetic. Exercise can reduce fatigue and improve mood. Talk to your health care team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out about exercise programs.
Taking care with infections during chemotherapy
Reduce your risk
When to see medical help
To prevent the spread of infection:
Contact your doctor or go to the nearest hospital emergency department immediately if you experience one or more of the following symptoms:
A/Prof John Moore (Conjoint UNSW), Senior Staff Specialist Haematology, Department of Haematology and Bone Marrow Transplant, Kinghorn Cancer Centre, St Vincent’s Hospital; Glynda Blomson, Consumer; Kevin Bloom, Senior Social Worker, Haematology and Bone Marrow Transplant, Royal North Shore Hospital; Sharon Frazer, Consumer; Prof Angela Hong, Radiation Oncologist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, and Clinical Professor, The University of Sydney; Yvonne King, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Karen Maddock, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Haematology, Westmead Hospital.
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Managing side effects
Learn more about the range of side effects caused by cancer and cancer treatment
Managing chemotherapy side effects
Most side effects from chemotherapy treatment are short-term and can be managed. Learn more.
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