Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: September 2017.

Systemic chemotherapy is a common treatment for patients with advanced bladder cancer.1 This type of chemotherapy is a powerful treatment against cancer cells, but it can also affect healthy cells in other parts of the body.

Chemotherapy is more likely to affect and cause side effects in healthy cells located in areas of the body that contain cells that divide quickly, such as:

  • Bone marrow
  • Lining of the mouth
  • Lining of the intestines
  • Hair follicles

What are common side effects of chemotherapy?

Side effects of chemotherapy can vary for different patients. The effects depend upon the type of chemotherapy medicine that is used, the dose, and how long the treatment period lasts. However, common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Poor appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Sores in the mouth
  • Loss of hair
  • Fatigue
  • Bruising easily or bleeding more due to minor injuries
  • Increased risk of infections

Before beginning chemotherapy treatment, the healthcare providers on your cancer care team will discuss the potential side effects with you as well as ways to help relieve or prevent those side effects.

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How do side effects impact daily life?

Some patients experience more severe side effects of chemotherapy than others, but most patients will have some impact on their day-to-day lives due to side effects.2,3

Fatigue is a common side effect of chemotherapy, and it can significantly affect a patient’s daily life. Some patients find that this side effect can make it difficult to work and to take part in normal, day-to-day activities. Chemotherapy and its side effects can cause fatigue and lack of energy for various reasons:

  • The effect of the chemotherapy drugs themselves
  • Your body is expending energy fighting the cancer cells
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Loss of appetite and not eating enough
  • Low levels of red and white blood cells

Some patients find that they are able to continue working between treatments, and others may be able to work part-time even while treatments are ongoing. Other patients need to take time off entirely during the treatment period, while others may be able to work from home.

Ways to relieve chemo side effects

For many patients, the side effects of chemotherapy go away after treatment is completed.1-3 However, there are also ways to help relieve side effects that do occur during or after chemotherapy treatment. Be sure to let your healthcare providers know about any side effects that you are experiencing, and if any of them have been getting worse.

To help reduce the side effects of nausea and vomiting, for example, there are medications that can be used to help prevent them. If you are experiencing a loss of appetite, it may be helpful to eat smaller meals more frequently rather than fewer larger meals. To make sure they consume enough calories to help fuel their bodies, some patients find it helpful to consume high calorie meal drinks or to add protein powders into their diet.

Because chemotherapy can cause side effects in the mouth, consider visiting your dentist for a check-up and cleaning before starting chemotherapy. If you are worried about the possibility of hair loss due to chemotherapy, it may be helpful to buy hats, scarves, or wigs in advance before treatment starts.