The side effects of
chemotherapy, sometimes called chemo, depend mainly on the medicines you
receive. As with other types of treatment, side effects vary from person to
In general, chemotherapy affects rapidly growing and dividing cells.
These include blood cells, which fight infection, cause the blood to clot, and
carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When blood cells are affected by
chemo, you are more likely to get infections and bruise or bleed easily. And you are likely to have less energy during treatment and for some time afterward.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the formal ranking system used by the PDQ Editorial Boards to assess evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Hair cells and cells that line the digestive tract also divide
rapidly. After treatment with chemotherapy, you may lose your hair and have
other side effects, such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or
Many side effects caused by chemotherapy, such as nausea and
vomiting, can now be controlled. Your doctor can prescribe
medicines to manage nausea and vomiting. Side effects
generally are short-term problems. They gradually go away during the recovery
part of the chemo cycle or after the treatment is over.
Fatigue is a common side effect of chemotherapy. Some people notice
that they feel a little more tired than usual, and other people feel completely
out of energy. After treatment is finished, this fatigue goes away over
Some people have a mild decline in the ability to think, learn,
reason, and remember (cognitive function) during the first years after some
types of chemotherapy. Cognitive function can take a few years to return to
Treatment with chemotherapy has been linked with poorer overall
quality of life in areas such as urinary incontinence and decreased frequency
of sexual intercourse. Although most people report minimal changes in physical
and emotional well-being, breast cancer survivors who reported problems with
quality-of-life issues continued to have problems for many years after
With modern chemotherapy, long-term side effects are rare. But there
have been cases in which the heart is damaged and second cancers such as
leukemia have developed.
Some chemotherapy can damage the ovaries. If the ovaries fail to
produce hormones, you may have symptoms of
menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
Your periods may become irregular or may stop. And you may not be able to
But some women are still able to become pregnant during treatment.
Because some chemo medicines cause birth defects and the effects of
other chemo drugs on a fetus are not known, it is important to talk to
your doctor about birth control before your treatment begins. After treatment,
some women regain their ability to become pregnant. But for most women older
than age 35, infertility is likely to be permanent.