Managing chemotherapy side effects
Chemotherapy affects all cells that grow and divide quickly in the body. This includes cancer cells and normal cells, such as the new blood cells in the bone marrow or the cells in the mouth, stomach, skin, hair and reproductive organs. When chemotherapy damages normal cells, this causes side effects.
Whether or not you experience side effects, and how severe they are, depends on the type and dose of drugs you are given and your reaction from one treatment cycle to the next.
Most side effects are short-term and can be managed. They tend to gradually improve once treatment stops and the normal, healthy cells recover. Sometimes, chemotherapy causes long-term side effects that don’t go away. These may include damage to your heart, lungs, nerve endings, kidneys, or reproductive organs.
You may worry about the side effects of chemotherapy. If you feel upset or anxious about how long treatment is taking or the impact of side effects, let your doctor or nurse know. The drugs used for chemotherapy are constantly being improved to give you the best possible results and to reduce potential side effects.
Learn more about:
- Preparing for side effects
- Recording side effects
- Trying complementary therapies
- Feeling tired and lacking energy
- Appetite changes, nausea or vomiting
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Hair loss
- Mouth sores
- Skin and nail changes
- Thinking and memory changes
- How chemotherapy affects the blood
- Nerve and muscle effects
- Sex and fertility
- Other side effects
Preparing for side effects
Some people have no side effects, others experience a range. If you have side effects, they will usually start during the first few weeks of treatment and may become more intense with each treatment cycle. Before treatment begins, your doctor or nurse will discuss the side effects to watch out for or report, how to help prevent or manage them, and who to contact after hours if you need help.
|If side effects change your appearance and self-esteem, consider registering for a free Look Good Feel Better workshop. For more details and to book, call 1800 650 960 or visit lgfb.org.au. You may also find it helpful to speak with a psychologist or counsellor, who can provide emotional support.|
Recording side effects
It can be useful to keep a record of your chemotherapy treatment in one place. This will help you recall details about when you experienced side effects, how long they lasted, and what helped to make them better. You can use a notebook, diary, smartphone or tablet.
Share the information you record with your doctors and nurses. They will be able to suggest ways to manage the side effects or, if appropriate, they may adjust your treatment.
Trying complementary therapies
Complementary therapies are sometimes used with conventional medical treatments. They may offer physical, emotional and spiritual support, help manage side effects, and improve quality of life.
Some therapies have been proven to be safe and effective in scientific studies. For example, therapies such as meditation, relaxation, massage and counselling can reduce anxiety, and acupuncture can reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and fatigue. These therapies are part of guidelines for complementary therapies and breast cancer.
It is important to talk to your doctors about any complementary therapies you are using or thinking about trying, as some could interfere with your treatment or make side effects worse.
Complementary therapies are different to alternative therapies, which are used instead of conventional medical treatments. These are unlikely to be scientifically tested and may prevent successful treatment of the cancer. Cancer Council does not recommend the use of alternative therapies.
For more on this, see Complementary Therapies.
Dr Prunella Blinman, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, and Clinical Senior Lecturer, Sydney Medical School, The University of Sydney, NSW; Gillian Blanchard, Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Nursing and Midwifery, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Julie Bolton, Consumer; Keely Gordon-King, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; John Jameson, Consumer; Dr Zarnie Lwin, Medical Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, and Senior Lecturer, School of Medicine, The University of Queensland, QLD; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Felicia Roncolato, Medical Oncology Staff Specialist, Macarthur Cancer Therapy Centre, NSW. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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