Chemotherapy drugs may cause side effects. But these can usually be well controlled with medicines and usually go away once treatment has finished. Not all drugs cause the same side effects and some people may have very few. You can talk to your cancer doctor or nurse about what to expect from the treatment that’s planned for you. The main side effects are described here as well as some ways to reduce or control them.
Lowered resistance to infection (neutropenia)
Chemotherapy can reduce the number of white blood cells, which help fight infection. If the number of your white blood cells is low you’ll be more prone to infections. A low white blood cell count is called neutropenia.
Always contact the hospital immediately on the 24-hour contact number you’ve been given and speak to a nurse or doctor if:
- you develop a high temperature – this may be over 37.5°C (99.5°F) or over 38°C (100.4°F) depending on the hospital’s policy. Follow the advice that you have been given by your chemotherapy team
- you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
- you feel shivery and shaky
- you have any symptoms of an infection such as a cold, sore throat, cough, passing urine more frequently (urine infection), diarrhoea.
If necessary, you’ll be given antibiotics to treat any infection.
You’ll have a blood test before each cycle of chemotherapy to make sure your white blood cells have recovered. Occasionally, your treatment may need to be delayed if the number of your white blood cells is still low.
Anaemia (reduced number of red blood cells)
Chemotherapy may reduce the number of red bloods cells (haemoglobin) in your blood. A low level of red blood cells is known as anaemia, which can make you feel very tired and lethargic. You may also become breathless.
Bruising and bleeding
Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. If the number of platelets in your blood is reduced, you may bruise very easily or bleed more than usual from minor cuts or grazes. Tell your hospital doctor or nurse about this. Contact them straight away if you have nosebleeds, bleeding gums or tiny red or purple spots on the skin (called petechiae).
Feeling sick (nausea) and vomiting
Some chemotherapy drugs can make you feel sick (nauseated) or possibly be sick (vomit). Your cancer specialist will prescribe anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs to prevent this. Let your doctor or nurse know if your anti-sickness drugs are not helping, as there are different types you can take.
You’re likely to become more tired as treatment goes on and you will have to take things slowly. Try to pace yourself and save your energy for things that you want to do or that need doing. Balance rest with some physical activity – even going for short walks will help you to feel less tired.
The chemotherapy drugs used to treat brain tumours may cause hair thinning. Complete hair loss is uncommon. Hair starts to grow back within about 3–6 months of the end of treatment. Your nurse can give you advice about coping with hair loss and how to look after your scalp.