Side effects of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy drugs work mainly on fast-growing cells, such as lymphoma cells. However, the drugs may also damage other types of fast-growing cells, such as hair follicles, blood cells, and cells inside the mouth or bowel. This can cause side effects. Some people will have few side effects, while others will have a range. Most side effects are temporary and can be managed.
Before treatment, your health care team will tell you what side effects to expect and how to manage them. Your doctor may give you medicines to relieve any symptoms you have. It is important to discuss any side effects from treatment with your doctor or nurse. They may need to closely monitor the problem or change your treatment.
Common side effects of chemotherapy
Different chemotherapy drugs can have different side effects, and everyone reacts to chemotherapy differently. For more information about chemotherapy and managing side effects, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see Chemotherapy.
FatigueSevere tiredness and lack of energy (fatigue) may make you feel weak and exhausted or you may have trouble concentrating. These feelings can last for several weeks or months after chemotherapy. Check with your doctor whether your fatigue is related to a low red blood cell count (anaemia). This can be treated with blood transfusions.
For more on this, see Fatigue and cancer and listen to our podcast on Managing Cancer Fatigue.
Increased risk of infectionsChemotherapy reduces your white blood cell level (neutropenia), making it harder for your body to fight infections. Colds and flu may be easier to catch and harder to shake off, and scratches or cuts may get infected more easily. You may also be more likely to catch a serious infection without any obvious cause and need to stay in hospital. To avoid infection from food, follow food safety guidelines and avoid high risk foods.
Learn ways of reducing your risk of infection.
Nerve and muscle effectsSome chemotherapy drugs can cause nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy). Symptoms can include tingling, pain or loss of feeling in your fingers and/or toes, and muscle weakness in your legs. These side effects usually start to disappear after your treatment ends, though they can last a long time or even be permanent.
For more on this, see Peripheral neuropathy and cancer.
Bleeding or bruisingA drop in the number of platelets in your blood (thrombocytopenia) can cause heavy bleeding from small cuts or make you bruise easily. You may be given a blood transfusion to increase your platelet count.
Hair thinning/hair lossYour hair will grow back after treatment, but it may look or feel different. You may be able to borrow a wig from a wig library. If you have private health insurance, check whether your fund will cover part of the cost of a wig if you lose your hair due to chemotherapy.
For more on this, see Hair loss.
Nausea and vomitingYou will usually be given anti-nausea medicines with each chemotherapy session to stop you feeling sick (nausea) or vomiting, as well as anti-nausea medicines to take home. These usually work well. Talk to a dietitian for specific advice about adjusting what you eat.
For more on this, see Nutrition and cancer and listen to our podcast on Appetite Loss and Nausea.
Dental problemsIf your platelet count falls, your gums may bleed more. Use a soft toothbrush and see your dentist for regular check-ups. Check with your treatment team before having major dental work.
For more on this, see Mouth health and cancer treatment.
Fertility and cancer treatment
Some types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy can affect the ability to have children naturally. Men may produce fewer sperm, while some women will have irregular periods or menopause (when periods stop permanently).
Most people treated for Hodgkin lymphoma don’t become infertile. Your doctor will talk to you about the risk and refer you to a fertility specialist if it may be an issue for you. If there is enough time before treatment begins, men may be able to preserve some semen and women may be able to freeze embryos or eggs.
For more on this, see Fertility and cancer.
Dr Abir Bhattacharyya, Bone Marrow Transplant and General Haematologist, Westmead Hospital; Katrina Debosz, Blood Cancer Nurse Practitioner, Institute of Haematology, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital; Taylah Dvorak, Consumer; Erinna Ford, Consumer; Dr Nada Hamad, Senior Staff Specialist, Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapies, and Clinical and Laboratory Haematologist, The Kinghorn Cancer Centre, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney; Prof Angela Hong, Radiation Oncologist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, and Clinical Professor, The University of Sydney; Suzanne Hough, Senior Clinical Dietitian, Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, Westmead Hospital; Yvonne King, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Samantha Rennie, Social Worker – Haematology, St George Hospital, Sydney.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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