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Understanding Arthritis and Chemotherapy Drugs

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy Drugs?

Side effects of chemotherapy drugs are fairly common, even though the doses are typically lower than the doses used to treat cancer.

All of these drugs can suppress the formation of blood cells, resulting in the following:

  • Anemia: low red blood cell count
  • Leukopenia/Neutropenia: low white blood cell count that may cause decreased resistance to infection
  • Thrombocytopenia: low platelet count that may cause impaired blood clotting

In addition, methotrexate and azathioprine can damage the liver, and cyclophosphamide can damage the urinary bladder lining and cause bleeding or cancer in the bladder lining. Cyclophosphamide also causes hair loss and sterility.

Methotrexate and cyclophosphamide can damage the lungs.

Because no drug is entirely safe, your rheumatologist will talk to you about the possible benefits of these drugs, as well as their side effects. The occurrence of side effects depends on the dose, type of medication, and length of treatment.

Obviously, it is very important to have the appropriate follow-up exams and laboratory testing while taking chemotherapy drugs. Careful monitoring can minimize all of these risks.

How Fast Do Chemotherapy Drugs Work?

Although there are some differences among chemotherapy drugs and how they are used to treat certain rheumatologic and autoimmune diseases, these drugs usually produce benefits gradually, requiring weeks to months for full effectiveness.

Methotrexate and azathioprine can be used for prolonged periods (many years) if necessary, as long as they do not cause side effects.

Cyclophosphamide is generally used for more limited periods because of its greater toxicity. However, in certain cases, more prolonged use may be necessary. However, if there is no benefit within four months, it is unlikely that continuing the same dose will be helpful.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD on September 26, 2012

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