The Side Effects of Chemotherapy: Here’s What to Expect

Most effects disappear when treatment ends; some linger for longer.

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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:

  • Hair loss

  • 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”

  • And fatigue.

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.”