Someone holding a pink brush with excess strands of hair in it.
One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is hair loss.

Common and Rare Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy is a widely used treatment method that involves using drugs to destroy cancer cells within the body. Chemotherapy is typically administered via intravenous injection, but is also available in pills, injections, and creams. While it is used to treat cancer, there are some chemotherapy side effects to be aware of that we are going to look at in this article.

Purposes of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may be applied for one of the following purposes:

  • Primary treatment of cancer
  • To kill hidden cancer cells after other forms of treatment
  • To prepare for surgery or radiation
  • Palliative or supportive care

Chemotherapy has also been proven quite effective in treating other health conditions, including:

  • Bone marrow diseases
  • Autoimmune disorders

Although chemotherapy is quite effective in treating cancer, it comes with its fair share of chemotherapy side effects. Therefore, it is advisable to discuss all of the pros and cons with your physician before initiating chemotherapy treatment.

What Causes Chemotherapy Side Effects?

Chemotherapy not only destroys cancer cells, but it can also attack the fast-growing healthy cells inside your body. The healthy cells that are most vulnerable to chemotherapy are:

  • Hair follicles
  • Skin
  • Bone marrow
  • Cells in the reproductive and digestive system

The chemotherapy side effects are caused due to damage to these normal cells. Oncologists typically use a dosage high enough to kill cancer cells, while at the same time keeping collateral damage to a minimum.

What Determines the Severity of Side Effects?

It’s important to keep in mind that different chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects, and chemotherapy affects people differently. The severity of the side effects depends on various factors, including:

  • Length of treatment
  • General health of the patient
  • Dosage
  • How the drug is administered

Common Chemotherapy Side Effects

Below we will outline some of the common chemotherapy side effects.

1. Anemia

Chemotherapy drugs can attack the healthy cells within the bone marrow where red blood cells are produced, resulting in anemia. Symptoms of anemia include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Pale skin
  • Lightheadedness

2. Weakened Immune System

The immune system in your body fights infections and prevents illness. White blood cells play a vital role in the immune system. Chemotherapy causes a significant drop in white blood cells, thereby weakening the immune system.

Having a compromised immune system makes an individual more prone to getting sick. It is therefore crucial to take necessary precautions to avoid exposure to germs during and after chemotherapy treatment.

3. Bleeding Disorders

Platelet cells aid the blood clotting mechanism, and chemotherapy causes a lowering of platelets. Low platelet counts can cause nosebleeds, vomiting blood, heavier menstruations, etc. Additionally, individuals with low platelet counts tend to heal very slowly from cuts and bruises.

4. Hair Loss

Chemotherapy attacks the fast-growing hair follicles causing hair to fall out. Hair that regrows during and after chemotherapy is a lot thinner and sometimes a different color. Patients almost always get their hair back after the end of treatment.

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5. Neuropathy

Chemotherapy drugs often damage one or more nerves resulting in tingling, numbness, pain, or muscle weakness in the affected area. It typically starts in the hands and feet but can spread to other parts of the body if not treated properly.

6. Constipation, Diarrhea, and Nausea

Chemotherapy drugs have the potential to damage the cells of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to either a hardening of stool, or diarrhea. Nausea is another common symptom related to damage of the digestive tract, and may lead to vomiting. Some other common disorders of the digestive system include:

  • Loss of taste and appetite
  • Dry mouth/mouth sores
  • Metallic taste in the mouth
  • Weight loss

7. Hormonal Dysfunction and Infertility

Chemotherapy drugs can have an adverse effect on hormone levels. Women undergoing chemotherapy treatment may experience hot flashes, night sweats, and/or irregular periods. In rare cases, chemotherapy may result in the sudden onset of menopause. Doctors advise against getting pregnant while receiving chemotherapy.

Some chemotherapy drugs can damage sperm cells and reduce sperm count in men. It can cause temporary, and sometimes, permanent infertility in men as well. Chemotherapy can also reduce sex drives in both men and women.

8. Kidney and Bladder Issues

Damage to the renal cells caused by chemotherapy treatment can harm kidney function. Some of the symptoms associated with kidney dysfunction include:

  • Loss of bladder control
  • Decreased urination
  • Burning sensation while urinating
  • Swollen hands, feet, or ankles

Rare Side Effects

Chemotherapy can also result in some rare side effects, including:

  • Alteration of skin color
  • Bone decay
  • Brain disorders (i.e. coma and dementia)
  • Cardiomyopathy and arrhythmia

Treatment of Chemotherapy Side Effects

Based on the nature of the side effect, your doctor may prescribe one or multiple treatments. To help ease nausea and vomiting you may take anti-nausea medicines. Additionally, it is advisable to eat a healthy diet that consists of smaller meals to aid digestion and minimize side effects.

Hydration

Both constipation and diarrhea can be minimized by staying hydrated. Additionally, adequate hydration also helps decrease gas formation and stomach bloating.

Breathing Exercises

If you are having breathing troubles, staying calm and doing breathing exercises may help. Your doctor may also prescribe medicine or oxygen therapy if the condition does not improve with time.

Hair Care Maintenance

For hair loss, there is no specific treatment. But you can slow down the hair loss process and enhance regrowth through proper hair care.

Lotions

There are lotions containing methanol and other supplements that help patients suffering from neuropathy. However, these drugs still need further research.
Other side effects from chemotherapy that are more severe require special medical attention.

In Conclusion

Before starting chemotherapy, it is important that you discuss the benefits and risks with your oncologist to determine if it is an appropriate treatment option for you.