Side effects of chemotherapy
The side effects of chemotherapy vary depending on the drugs given. Everyone reacts to chemotherapy differently. For more information about chemotherapy and how to manage any side effects, call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see our general section on Chemotherapy.
Common side effects of chemotherapy
FatigueSevere tiredness and lack of energy (fatigue) may make you feel drowsy, exhausted or confused. These symptoms can last for several weeks or months after having 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 infectionChemotherapy reduces your white blood cell level (neutropenia), making 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. You may also be more likely to catch a more serious infection without any obvious cause and need to stay in hospital. Your doctor may recommend antibiotics.
Learn ways to reduce your risk of infection.
Nausea and vomitingYou will usually be given anti-nausea medicines with each chemotherapy session to stop you feeling sick (nauseous) or vomiting. These usually work very well. If you still feel sick or keep vomiting after using the prescribed medicine, let your nurse or doctor know so that another medicine can be tried.
For more on this, see Nutrition and cancer or listen to our podcast on Appetite Loss and Nausea.
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 platelet transfusion to increase your platelet count.
ConstipationSome chemotherapy drugs and medicines used for anti-nausea cause constipation. Ways to prevent constipation include drinking 6–8 glasses of water a day, eating a high-fibre diet and getting daily exercise. Your treatment team may also suggest or prescribe suitable laxative or stool softener.
Mouth soresChemotherapy can damage the cells in the mouth causing mouth sores. These usually get better after treatment ends. Keeping your mouth clean will help prevent infections. Use a soft toothbrush to keep your mouth clean. Rinse your mouth four times a day with ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda and ¼ tsp salt
dissolved in a cup of warm water. If using a mouthwash, pick alcohol-free products.
For more on this, see Mouth health and cancer.
Podcast for people affected by cancer
A/Prof Christina Brown, Haematologist, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital; Khaled Aly, Consumer; Kevin Bloom, Senior Social Worker, Haematology and Bone Marrow Transplant, Royal North Shore Hospital; Katrina Debosz, CAR-T and Lymphoma Nurse Practitioner, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital; Dr Samuel Dickson, Radiation Oncologist, Calvary Mater Newcastle; Dr Wojt Janowski, Haematologist, Calvary Mater Newcastle; Yvonne King, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Karen Maddock, Blood Transplant and Cell Therapy Nurse Practitioner, Westmead Hospital; Sheridan Wellings, Consumer.
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