Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in your body. That’s why it is used in most cancer treatments, especially breast cancer — because the cancer cells are growing and multiplying more quickly than normal cells. Depending on your individual situation, chemotherapy may be the main treatment option, or it may be combined with surgery.
Chemotherapy can be very effective, but it is a difficult treatment for the body to take. And it has numerous side effects. Some of these are well known; others are not.
Here’s a breakdown of the 10 most common chemotherapy side effects and what you can expect.
- Hair loss — Chemotherapy often damages the hair follicles, causing the hair to weaken and fall out. Hair that replaces it will be thinner or even a different color. This will continue until chemotherapy ends. Hair almost always regrows after chemotherapy ends.
- Nausea and vomiting — A person can have nausea and vomiting suddenly after each chemotherapy session, or at random. It may help to eat smaller meals or to avoid certain foods. If your nausea is predictable, anti-nausea drugs can help.
- Illness and a weakened immune system — Chemotherapy cannot distinguish normal cells from cancer cells, so it kills both. This includes healthy immune cells. This makes the patient more vulnerable to infection. Also, infections/illness may last longer due to your decreased immune cells.
- Bruising and bleeding more easily — Chemotherapy can make the patient bruise and bleed more easily. This is usually not a concern, but you need to take care to not have a serious injury, such as a deep cut or fall, as bleeding could be a problem.
- Neuropathy — Certain chemotherapy drugs cause neuropathy, nerve pain due to nerve damage. This often affects the hands and feet with the person feeling tingling, numbness, and unusual electrical sensations. There can also be ringing in the ears. Calcium and magnesium supplements show some promise in warding off this side effect.
- Difficulty breathing — Chemotherapy can damage the lungs, reducing lung capacity. This makes it hard for the person to get enough oxygen, which is obviously disconcerting. Any exercise needs to be carefully considered with your doctor if you are experiencing oxygen loss.
- Constipation and diarrhea — Chemotherapy can kill cells that aid in digestion. This can lead to both constipation and diarrhea. Constipation is more common than diarrhea, but the diarrhea can lead to dehydration.
- Rashes — When your immune system is impacted by loss of certain cells due to chemotherapy, it can respond by creating skin rashes. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone can help reduce the itching.
- Mouth sores — Some people develop sores in their mouth roughly 1-2 weeks after their chemotherapy treatments. The sores vary in intensity. Rinsing with warm water can help. Numbing gels can also be prescribed.
- Pain — Chronic muscle pain, headaches, and overall generalized pain is common after chemotherapy. Some of this can be tied to nerve damage, some to stress and tension. Relaxation exercises and massage can help with muscle pain and dealing with the stress. Pain medication may be necessary.
While these side effects sound incredibly bad, this doesn’t mean every breast cancer patient who goes through chemotherapy will have them. Certain chemotherapy drugs are linked to specific side effects, so you can expect what is coming. Otherwise, you and your doctor will discuss these side effects and possible others before you start any chemotherapy.