Most effects disappear when treatment ends; some linger for longer.
New treatments for cancer are exciting and promising, but that doesn’t mean chemotherapy isn’t still saving lives every day. Chemotherapy is one of the original cancer treatments, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
While chemotherapy can be effective and life-saving, it does come with side effects due to how it works. Chemotherapy is a class of drugs that target rapidly dividing cells in the body, which includes both cancer cells and some normal, healthy cells.
The chemotherapy drugs try to damage and kill off these rapidly dividing cells to stop cancer growth, but in the process, they also damage some normal cells. There are many normal cells in the body that divide rapidly, including your hair cells, your blood-forming cells in the bone marrow, the cells in your reproductive system, and the cells that line the mouth and digestive tract.
“Chemotherapy sort of has a connotation of something that’s really harsh and really makes you very, very sick, but the truth is, chemotherapies have changed a lot,” says Ashish Saxena, MD, oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. “As the decades have gone, they’ve gotten better at getting drugs that have less side effects than they used to.”
That said, some common side effects associated with chemotherapy include:
Blood problems, like anemia, easy bruising and bleeding, and infections
Digestion problems, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, low appetite, bladder changes, and mouth sores
Hormonal problems, like mood changes, libido changes, and fertility problems
Mental problems, like “chemo brain”
There are medications available to mitigate these unpleasant side effects, and there are also alternative approaches, such as medical marijuana (to reduce pain, nausea, and appetite) and acupuncture (to reduce pain, nausea, nerve problems, fatigue, and more).
“Usually, after the whole treatment is done, [patients] may have side effects from the chemotherapy that can linger for some time,” says Dr. Saxena. “Sometimes it’s only weeks; sometimes it’s months. But generally, as the time passes from the chemotherapy, they start to get stronger, feel better, and get closer back to how they were before.”
Dr. Saxena is an oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.
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Chemotherapy sort of has a connotation
of something that's really harsh and
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really makes you very, very sick.
00:00:07,490 --> 00:00:11,400
But the truth is chemotherapies
have changed a lot since before.
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And as the decades have gone,
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we've gotten better at getting drugs that
have less side effects than they used to.
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And we've also had a good amount of
experience in managing those side effects,
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so we know what to do when
the person has a side effect.
00:00:28,497 --> 00:00:32,019
Different chemotherapy drugs can
cause different side effects.
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Some common side effects that can
sometimes happen are low blood counts, so
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things like anemia or
low white blood cells, or
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low platelets which
are involved in blood clotting.
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And sometimes cells that line
the intestine can get affected and
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cause things like diarrhea.
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fatigue can happen with chemotherapy.
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Nausea or vomiting.
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And then some drugs more specifically
cause some side effects like hair loss.
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Some chemotherapy drugs have a high chance
of causing hair loss whereas others
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have a very low chance
of causing hair loss.
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In terms of decreasing
the white blood cell count,
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sometimes a doctor may give something to
help keep your white blood cell count up.
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They will also probably give
you something for nausea.
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And we think it's important that you
take that at the first sign of nausea,
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not waiting until you get very
nauseous before trying that.
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Because it's easier to get ahead of it and
take it at the first sign of nausea.
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In terms of the tiredness and the fatigue,
that can be difficult to treat.
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But we recommend that the patients
still try to do some activity,
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even though they may be feeling tired,
even if it's just taking a short walk.
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Because the more they sit around and
don't do anything,
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it tends to compound the fatigue and
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Usually, after the whole
treatment is done and
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most patients have had a number of
doses of chemo, they can feel fatigue.
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They may have side effects from
the chemotherapy that can linger for
00:01:49,342 --> 00:01:49,910
00:01:49,910 --> 00:01:52,252
Sometimes it's only weeks,
sometimes it's months.
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But generally as the time passes from the
chemotherapy, they start to get stronger,
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feel better, and
get closer back to how they were before.
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Cancer chemotherapy. Washington, DC: MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on June 26, 2019 at https://medlineplus.gov/cancerchemotherapy.html.)
Chemotherapy side effects. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2016. (Accessed on June 26, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy/chemotherapy-side-effects.html.)Marijuana and cancer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2017. (Accessed on June 26, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/marijuana-and-cancer.html.)