Possible side effects

Chemotherapy treatment can cause different side effects. These vary depending on the drugs you have. Your doctor or nurse will tell you which ones you are more likely to get.

Some side effects are more common than others but you won’t have them all. They can be reduced and controlled with drugs. Your doctor or nurse can tell you how to manage them. The most frequent ones include:

  • increased risk of infection
  • anaemia (reduced number of blood cells)
  • hair loss or thinning
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • mouth ulcers
  • tiredness
  • tingling in your hands or feet.

Most side effects are short term and will improve gradually when the treatment is over.

One of the most common side effects is an increased risk of infection. Always contact the hospital and speak to a nurse or doctor if:

  • you have a temperature
  • you suddenly feel unwell
  • you have any symptoms of an infection – a cold, sore throat, cough, passing urine frequently (urine infection), diarrhoea, feeling shivery and shaking etc.

Side effects

Chemotherapy drugs can cause side effects. But many of these can be well controlled with medicines and will usually go away when your treatment is finished.

If the cancer is causing symptoms, chemotherapy can also make you feel better by relieving them. Your doctor or nurse will tell you more about what to expect. Always mention any side effects you’re having, as there are usually ways in which they can be controlled.

The main side effects are described here, along with some ways to control or reduce them.


Risk of infection

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 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 frequently, 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)

If chemotherapy reduces the number of red blood cells in your blood, you may become very tired and feel you have no energy. You may also become breathless and feel dizzy and light-headed. These symptoms happen because the red blood cells contain haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body.

If your haemoglobin is low you may be offered a blood transfusion. You’ll feel more energetic and any breathlessness will be eased.


Bruising and bleeding

Chemotherapy can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. If you develop any unexplained bruising or bleeding, such as nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots or rashes on the skin, contact your doctor or the hospital straight away.


Feeling sick (nausea)

Some chemotherapy drugs can make you feel sick (nauseated) or possibly be sick (vomit). Your haematologist 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 several different types you can try.


Tiredness (fatigue)

You’re likely to become tired and have to take things more 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 just going for a short walk will help increase your energy.


Loss of appetite

Some people lose their appetite while they’re having chemotherapy. This can be mild and may only last a few days. If you don’t feel like eating during treatment, you could try replacing some meals with nutritious drinks or a soft diet. If it doesn’t improve, you can ask to see a dietitian.


Sore mouth

Your mouth may become sore (or dry), or you may notice small ulcers during treatment. Some people find that sucking on ice may be soothing. Drinking plenty of fluids, and cleaning your teeth regularly and gently with a soft toothbrush, can help to reduce the risk of this happening. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any of these problems, as they can prescribe mouthwashes and medicine to prevent or clear mouth infections.

Mouth problems during cancer treatment

A slide show with tips for looking after your mouth during chemotherapy.

About our cancer information videos

Mouth problems during cancer treatment

A slide show with tips for looking after your mouth during chemotherapy.

About our cancer information videos


Diarrhoea

Some chemotherapy drugs can cause diarrhoea usually in the first few days. Let your nurse or doctor know if this happens. They can prescribe medicine to reduce this.

Make sure you drink plenty of liquid (up to two litres a day) to replace fluid you’re losing with diarrhoea. Eat less fibre (cereals, raw fruits and vegetables) until the diarrhoea improves.

Sometimes diarrhoea can be more severe and it’s important to contact the hospital if this happens. If you have more than 4–6 episodes of diarrhoea a day, contact the hospital on the telephone numbers you’ve been given and speak to a doctor or nurse.


Hair loss

Your doctor or nurse will be able to tell you if the chemotherapy drugs that you are going to have will cause hair loss. Not all the drugs used to treat womb cancer have this side effect. If your hair does fall out, it will start to grow back again once your chemotherapy is over.


Effects on the nerves

Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the nerves in your hands or feet. This can cause tingling or numbness, a sensation of pins and needles or muscle weakness (called peripheral neuropathy).

It’s important to let your doctor know if this happens. They may need to change the chemotherapy drug if it gets worse. Usually, peripheral neuropathy gradually gets better when chemotherapy is over but sometimes it’s permanent.


Allergic reaction

Paclitaxel may sometimes cause an allergic reaction while it’s being given. To reduce the chance of this happening, you’ll be given steroids before and after treatment. Signs of a reaction can include: skin rashes and itching, a high temperature, shivering, dizziness, a headache, and breathlessness. If you notice any of these effects, tell your nurse or doctor straight away so it can be treated quickly.


Increased risk of blood clots

Cancer can increase your risk of developing a blood clot (thrombosis) and having chemotherapy may increase this risk further. A blood clot may cause symptoms such as pain, redness and swelling in a leg, or breathlessness and chest pain. Blood clots can be very serious so it’s important to tell your doctor straight away if you have any of these symptoms. Most clots can be successfully treated with drugs that thin the blood. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.

Back to Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemo brain

Chemo brain describes changes in memory, concentration and the ability to think clearly. These changes can sometimes happen during or after cancer treatment.