Living With Chemotherapy

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on March 05, 2024
3 min read

Most people who are about to begin chemotherapy (“chemo”) worry about its side effects. The medications affect you physically, and they can make a mess of your emotions and moods. But remember that everyone’s reaction to chemo is different. Your team of doctors and nurses can do a lot to lessen the side effects.

Here’s an overview of what you can expect while you’re getting chemo.

Chemo consists of powerful medications that can kill any kind of fast-growing cell. It can affect all areas of your body, especially your bone marrow, hair, skin, digestive tract, and reproductive system.

The list of possible side effects is long. But you might have very few. It’ll depend on what type of cancer you have, how the chemo is delivered (orally or through IV), and the medications you’re taking.

Side effects may include:

Chemo can greatly affect your moods. The stress of cancer treatment can be an emotional roller coaster, and the physical side effects could take a toll on your spirits. Here are some ways chemo might affect your mental state:

  • Chemo brain. This is the term for the mental fogginess that often comes during and after treatment. You might have trouble finding the right words when you speak, or not be able to organize and multitask like you used to. For most people, this is a short-term side effect.
  • Depression. Chemical changes caused by treatment may lead to a spike in feelings of anxiety and depression.
  • Low sex drive. Your sex drive will probably take a hit. Some women also have pain during intercourse.

Good nutrition is more important than ever when you’re going through chemo. A healthy diet will help fend off the negative effects of the powerful medications in your body. Eating the right foods will give you energy, keep your weight up, help you deal with side effects, and lower your chances of getting an infection.

You’ll want to be sure your meals are a good balance of the following:

  • Proteins. These play a big role in fighting infection and promoting healing.
  • Carbohydrates and fats. Both give you energy and can promote weight gain.
  • Antioxidants. These substances prevent harmful molecules called free radicals from harming normal cells.

Your doctor might advise you to limit red meat, alcohol, sugar, salt, and saturated fats while you’re getting chemo. Your diet should include as many whole foods as possible. You’ll want to eat the “good” carbs and fats -- unprocessed and unsaturated. Drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated.

But what if you lose your appetite? That’s not uncommon during chemo. The goal is to get enough calories to maintain your weight and energy. High-protein, high-calorie shakes often work well if you can’t bring yourself to eat regular meals.

Vitamins and supplements may provide nutrients. But always check with your doctor before taking them. You want to make sure they won’t cause your chemo to be less effective.

If you need to keep working during your treatment, your doctor and employer should be able to make that happen. Your doctor can help you figure out a chemo routine that’ll fit with your work schedule. They’ll help you design one that will take into account your medications and the timing of possible side effects.

If you work for the government or for a company with more than 15 employees, you’re covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Your employer must help you work through your treatment. That might mean changing your schedule or responsibilities, letting you leave for appointments, or giving you permission to work from home.