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Coping With the Side Effects of Chemotherapy

If you are like many people, the thought of going through chemotherapy is as daunting than the cancer itself. However, the kind of side effects you have and how severe they are, depend on the type and dose of chemotherapy you receive and how your body reacts.

The Cause of Side Effects

Many anticancer drugs are made to kill rapidly growing cancer cells. But certain normal, healthy cells also multiply quickly, and chemotherapy can affect these cells too. This damage to normal cells causes side effects. The fast-growing, normal cells most likely to be affected are blood cells forming in the bone marrow and cells in the digestive tract (mouth, stomach, intestines, esophagus), reproductive system (sexual organs), and hair follicles. Some anticancer drugs may affect cells of vital organs, such as the heart, kidney, bladder, lungs, and nervous system.

Depending on the treatment you may have none, just a few, or many of these side effects . Before starting chemotherapy, your doctor should give you all the facts about treatment, including the drugs you will be given and their side effects.

How Long the Side Effects Last

Most side effects gradually go away after treatment ends, and the healthy cells have a chance to grow normally. The time it takes to get over side effects depends on many things, including your overall health and the kind of chemotherapy you have been taking and for how long.

Most people have no serious long-term problems from chemotherapy. However, on some occasions, chemotherapy can cause permanent changes or damage to the heart, lungs, brain cells, nerves, kidneys, reproductive, or other organs. And certain types of chemotherapy may have delayed effects, such as a second cancer, that shows up many years later. Ask your doctor about the chances of any serious, long-term effects that can result from the treatment you are receiving. Remember, you want to balance your concerns with the immediate threat of your cancer.

Great progress has been made in preventing and treating some of chemotherapy's common as well as rare and serious side effects. Many new drugs and treatment methods destroy cancer more effectively while doing less harm to the body's healthy cells.

The side effects of chemotherapy can be unpleasant, but they must be measured against the treatment's ability to destroy cancer. Some medications can help prevent or improve some side effects such as nausea.

Sometimes people receiving chemotherapy become discouraged about the length of time their treatment is taking or the side effects they are having. If that happens to you, talk to your doctor or nurse. They may be able to suggest ways to reduce side effects or make them easier to deal with.

Tips on Managing Common Side Effects

Common side effects of chemotherapy include:


Nausea and vomiting


Hair loss



Blood clotting problems

Mouth, gum, and throat problems



Nerve and muscle effects

Skin and nail problems

Kidney and bladder problems

Sexual effects



American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


BC Cancer Agency

Canadian Cancer Society


Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed November 14, 2017.

Chemotherapy and you. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated June 2011. Accessed November 14, 2017.

Toxicities of chemotherapeutic agents. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated October 23, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2017.

Last reviewed November 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 12/8/2015