The side effects of chemotherapy (chemo) vary from person to person. They depend on which medicines you take, how much you take, and how the medicines affect you. Your doctor can tell you what side effects to expect and how to manage them.
Most side effects are short-term problems. They slowly go away during the recovery part of the chemo cycle or after the treatment is over.
Common side effects include:
Some people notice that they feel a little more tired than usual. Other people feel completely out of energy. After treatment is finished, this fatigue goes away over time.
- Mouth sores, loss of appetite, and other digestive problems.
These problems include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. They can usually be controlled.
- Infections and bruising or bleeding easily.
Some blood cells fight infection and cause the blood to clot. When blood cells are affected by chemo, you are more likely to get infections and to bruise or bleed easily. Your doctor can tell you what precautions to take and how long to keep using the precautions.
- Hair loss.
Some chemo medicines can cause hair loss. It occurs on all parts of the body, not just the head. Hair usually grows back within 3 to 6 months after it falls out.
- Nerve problems.
Chemotherapy can damage your nervous system. You may notice tingling or a lack of feeling in your hands or feet, or shaking or trembling. These problems usually get better after treatment.
- Thinking and memory (cognitive) problems.
Some types of chemo may cause a mild decline in how well you can think, learn, reason, and remember. This is often called "chemo brain." It can take a few years for cognitive function to return to normal.
- Sexual problems.
Chemotherapy may cause sex and fertility problems.
- In women, some chemotherapy can damage the ovaries. That can cause symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Periods may become irregular or may stop. You may be infertile, or unable to get pregnant. For most women older than age 35, infertility is likely to be permanent.
- Some men may have problems getting erections for a short time after chemo. And some may have less desire for sex. Some kinds of chemo may cause infertility.
Long-term side effects are rare. But there have been cases where the heart has been damaged or a second cancer such as leukemia has developed.
Some chemotherapy drugs can cause birth defects, so it's important to talk to your doctor about birth control before your treatment starts.
Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Jimmy Ruiz MD - Hematology, Oncology