Managing chemotherapy side effects
Chemotherapy drugs can damage healthy, fast-growing cells, such as the new blood cells in the bone marrow or the cells in the mouth, stomach, skin, hair and reproductive organs. When healthy cells are damaged, it causes side effects.
We provide information and tips to help you manage some common side effects of chemotherapy.
Learn more about:
- Preparing for side effects
- Complementary therapies and chemotherapy
- Feeling tired and lacking energy
- Appetite changes, nausea or vomiting
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Hair loss
- Thinking and memory changes
- Mouth sores
- Skin and nail changes
- How chemotherapy affects the blood
- Nerve and muscle effects
- Sexuality and fertility
- Other side effects
Preparing for side effects
Everyone reacts to chemotherapy differently. Some people have no side effects, others have many. Whether 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.
If you have side effects, they will usually start during the first few weeks of treatment and occasionally 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.
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 had side effects, how long they lasted and what helped to make them better. Some people use a notebook or a diary, while others prefer to use a smartphone or tablet.
Share the information you record with your treatment team. They will be able to suggest ways to manage the side effects or, if appropriate, they may adjust your treatment.
Keep a list of the doses and names of your chemotherapy drugs, along with the names of your specialists. This will save time if you become ill and need to visit the emergency department. Make sure to tell the hospital staff that you are having chemotherapy.
How long side effects may last
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, make sure to see your GP for regular health checks.
Long term and late effects of treatment
If damage to your heart muscle or lungs is a possibility, your doctor will monitor your heart and lung function throughout treatment to limit your risk of damage. They will adjust your chemotherapy if early changes are seen.
Occasionally, many years after having some types of chemotherapy, some people develop a new, unrelated cancer. The risk of this is very low, but other factors, such as continuing to smoke or very rare genetic conditions, can increase this risk.
If any symptoms appear, even many years after treatment, ask your GP whether they could be related to the cancer treatment you received. Ask whether your hospital has a late effects clinic to help you manage any side effects you may experience after treatment.
For more on this, see Living well after cancer.
Complementary therapies and chemotherapy
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, meditation, relaxation, massage and counselling can reduce anxiety, and acupuncture can reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and fatigue.
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.
Alternative therapies 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.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Clinical A/Prof Rosemary Harrup, Director, Cancer and Blood Services, Royal Hobart Hospital, TAS; Katie Benton, Advanced Dietitian, Cancer Care, Sunshine Coast Hospital and Queensland Health, QLD; Gillian Blanchard, Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Stacey Burton, Consumer; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Andrew Greig, Consumer; Steve Higgs, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Prof Desmond Yip, Clinical Director, Department of Medical Oncology, The Canberra Hospital, ACT.
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