What are the side effects of chemotherapy and how can you manage them?

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment for cancer that utilizes cytotoxic drugs to destroy rapidly dividing cancer cells. By disrupting the cancer cell’s ability to divide and grow, chemotherapy drugs aim to halt the spread of cancer and induce cell death. These drugs can be administered via various routes such as orally or through injection. The selection of chemotherapy drugs depends on various factors, including the type and stage of cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health and medical history. For instance, chemotherapy for breast cancer may involve a combination of drugs such as anthracyclines, taxanes, or cyclophosphamide, while chemotherapy for lung cancer may involve platinum-based drugs such as cisplatin or carboplatin, and newer drugs such as pemetrexed or docetaxel. Similarly, chemotherapy for blood cancer may require drugs such as cytarabine, methotrexate, or rituximab, which specifically target the abnormal blood cells. Despite the side effects, chemotherapy remains a critical treatment tool in the fight against cancer. It is imperative for patients to discuss their treatment options with their healthcare provider to determine the optimal course of action for their specific cancer type and stage.

What are the side effects that chemotherapy comes with?

• Fatigue: Chemotherapy can cause fatigue due to its impact on healthy cells, such as bone marrow cells that produce red blood cells. This can lead to anemia, which is characterized by symptoms such as weakness, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
• Nausea and Vomiting: Chemotherapy drugs can irritate the lining of the stomach and intestines, causing nausea and vomiting. For example, patients receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer may experience nausea and vomiting after taking drugs such as doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide.
• Hair loss: Chemotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells, including those in hair follicles, leading to hair loss. For example, patients receiving chemotherapy for lung cancer may experience hair loss after taking drugs such as paclitaxel and docetaxel. The hair may fall out completely or become thin and brittle. This side effect is temporary, and hair usually grows back after chemotherapy treatment is complete.
• Anemia: Chemotherapy can cause a decrease in red blood cell count, leading to anemia. For example, patients receiving chemotherapy for blood cancer may experience anemia after taking drugs such as cytarabine and idarubicin. This can result in fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and pale skin. Chemotherapy can also affect white blood cells and platelets, which can increase the risk of infections and bleeding.
• Infection: Chemotherapy can compromise the immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to infections. It can also affect the bone marrow cells that produce white blood cells, leading to a drop in white blood cell count.
• Mouth sores: Chemotherapy can irritate the lining of the mouth, throat, and digestive tract, leading to painful sores. For example, patients receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer may experience mouth sores after taking drugs such as capecitabine and 5-fluorouracil. These sores can make it difficult to eat and drink, leading to dehydration and malnutrition. Good oral hygiene and avoiding spicy or acidic foods can help prevent these sores.
• Skin changes: Some cancer chemotherapy drugs can cause skin irritation, dryness, and rashes. They can also make the skin more sensitive to sunlight, leading to sunburn and skin damage. Patients should protect their skin from sun exposure and use moisturizing creams to alleviate these symptoms.

Some effective tips to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy

• Maintaining a healthy diet: It’s recommended to consume a variety of nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. For patients undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, it’s essential to maintain a healthy weight, as being overweight can lead to a higher risk of recurrence.
• Staying hydrated: Drinking adequate fluids, including water and herbal tea, can help flush out the toxic metabolites released as a result of chemotherapy administration. For lung cancer patients, it’s especially important to avoid dehydration, as it can cause breathing difficulties.
• Exercising regularly: Physical activity can aid in combating the fatigue and weakness induced by cancer chemotherapy. Low-impact exercises, such as walking or yoga, are recommended. Blood cancer patients should consult with their doctor before beginning any exercise program.
• Managing nausea and vomiting: Anti-nausea medications can help control these side effects. Additionally, eating small, frequent meals and avoiding strong smells or flavors can help reduce nausea. For lung cancer patients, it’s recommended to take anti-nausea medication before treatment to prevent these symptoms from occurring.
• Taking care of the skin: Chemotherapy can cause skin dryness, irritation, and sensitivity. Using a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer and avoiding sun exposure can help protect the skin. For breast cancer patients, it’s recommended to avoid shaving underarms to prevent irritation.
• Managing constipation: Chemotherapy can cause constipation, which can be uncomfortable and even painful. To prevent or manage constipation, patients should drink plenty of fluids, consume high-fiber foods, and use a stool softener or laxative as needed.
• Protecting oral health: Chemotherapy can cause mouth sores, dry mouth, and other oral health issues. To protect oral health, patients should brush and floss regularly, use a soft-bristled toothbrush, avoid alcohol-based mouthwash, and stay hydrated.
• Managing neuropathy: Chemotherapy can cause nerve damage, which can result in numbness, tingling, or pain in the hands and feet. Patients can manage neuropathy by using warm water and avoiding extreme temperatures, wearing supportive footwear, and practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation.
• Managing hair loss: Hair loss is a common side effect of chemotherapy for breast cancer and other types of cancer. To manage hair loss, patients may consider using a cold cap to minimize hair loss, wearing a wig or scarf, or trying new hairstyles that make hair loss less noticeable.

What are the 5 most common myths that surround chemotherapy?

Myths and Facts of chemotherapy

• “Your hair will always fall out due to Chemotherapy” – All chemotherapy drugs do not cause hair loss. Even when it is a potential side effect, it doesn’t happen to everyone. For example, chemotherapy for blood cancer doesn’t necessarily cause hair loss.
• “You can’t do anything during chemotherapy” – This is false. While you may not be able to do everything you could before treatment, many patients are able to continue working, traveling, and enjoying hobbies during chemotherapy for breast cancer or lung cancer. It’s important to talk to your doctor about what activities are safe for you.
• “Chemotherapy only causes nausea” – While nausea is a common side effect, chemotherapy for cancer can cause many other side effects, including fatigue, mouth sores, neuropathy, and more.
• “Chemotherapy will cure cancer” – While chemotherapy can be a powerful tool in fighting cancer, it’s important to remember that it’s not a guaranteed cure. Chemotherapy for lung cancer, breast cancer, or blood cancer can be effective, but it’s often used in combination with other treatments like surgery or radiation.
• “Chemotherapy is always painful” – While some chemotherapy drugs can cause discomfort during administration, the actual process of receiving chemotherapy is often painless. Your doctor can prescribe medications to manage any pain or discomfort that does occur.


Chemotherapy can be a challenging experience due to its potential side effects, which can affect the physical and emotional well-being of patients. It is imperative to maintain regular communication with your healthcare provider to monitor and manage any side effects that may arise during the chemotherapy treatment, ensuring timely intervention and proper care. By implementing strategies such as maintaining adequate hydration levels, consuming a balanced and nutritious diet, getting sufficient rest, and seeking support, patients can effectively manage the side effects of chemotherapy and enhance their overall well-being during cancer chemotherapy. It is also crucial to seek guidance from a qualified chemotherapist, especially if undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, lung cancer, blood cancer, or any other type of cancer. In India, patients can trust the expertise of Dr. Satish Sharma, a highly skilled and experienced oncologist, and chemotherapist in Ranchi, to provide personalized care and support throughout their treatment journey.