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Woman feeling fatigue due to chemotherapy

Here’s What Chemo Feels Like

When I first heard that I’d need chemotherapy to treat my bladder cancer, terrifying visions swam into my head. Knowing virtually nothing about cancer treatment, I pictured chemotherapy like it’s portrayed in the movies and on TV. I saw my face, sunken, with dark circles around my eyes. I saw myself vomiting over trash bins and wearing a bright, silk scarf to cover my baldness.

Chemotherapy doesn’t look the same for everyone

But what I didn’t know was that cancer treatment can vary as much as the cancer itself. Chemotherapy doesn’t look like – or feel the same way – for every person, and my chemotherapy experience looked nothing like I pictured it.

Chemotherapy is simply the use of medicines that kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.1 Depending on your age, the type of cancer, the stage of your tumor, and other medical conditions, chemotherapy can be administered in different ways and for various periods of time. Chemotherapy can be given in pill form, taken intravenously, or injected. It can last weeks or months or be given as a one-time treatment.

A short relationship with chemotherapy

Patients who have low-grade, noninvasive bladder cancer, like I did, tend to have a short relationship with chemotherapy. In my case, after the tumors were removed from my bladder, I was given one round of intravesical chemotherapy right after surgery. In other words, the medicine was applied directly through my bladder via a catheter and then drained. Patients with high-grade, noninvasive bladder cancer usually get several rounds of this treatment over several weeks. Patients with more invasive bladder cancers get chemotherapy in pill form or through a vein or muscle, and in conjunction with radiation therapy.1

Nervous about side effects of intravesical chemotherapy

I was relieved that I didn’t have to do a more invasive chemo regimen, for sure. But I was still nervous about the side effects of any kind of chemotherapy. Side effects of intravesical chemotherapy include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, and chills.2 Thankfully, I only noticed a little fatigue, and it was probably just because my body was recovering from surgery.

The range of experiences

Talking to other cancer survivors, I’m surprised at the range of responses from people who have had chemo treatments. In my support groups, some patients have such bad fatigue they can hardly function. Others describe intense nausea and even their hair hurting. One person shared with me he’s suffered nerve damage since his chemotherapy treatments, giving his hands and feet a painful tingling sensation. It’s not pleasant, he tells me, but it’s way better than the alternative. Had it not been for chemotherapy, he says, he would have died years ago.

There’s always a chance of recurrence

Chemo still scares me. As bladder cancer has a high recurrence rate, there’s always a chance my tumors will come back and I’ll need multiple rounds of chemo to treat it. And because chemo looks and feels so different for everyone, there’s really no telling how it will affect me, if I do have to get it. I think about it often – will I need to shave my head, one day? Will I have black circles under my eyes, constant nausea, extreme fatigue? Or was one round of chemo enough?

Thankful to be cancer-free

But I also remember what that survivor told me: Chemo, even the worst experience, is better than the alternative. He and I are currently cancer-free, and we have chemo to thank.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Understanding Chemotherapy. Cancer.Net. Accessed February 19, 2019.
  2. Intravesical Therapy for Bladder Cancer. American Cancer Society. Accessed February 19, 2019.


  • lori
    9 months ago

    I have low grade, non invasive bladder cancer too. I was diagnosed in August of 2018 after my urine was suddenly bloody with clots. 2 weeks later they removed 4 tumors with TURBT surgery I also received one intravesical chemotherapy treatment directly into my bladder. I also had fatigue as a side affect, thankfully only for a month or so. In December I went back for my 3 month cystoscopy. I was feeling great, I really thought I was going to be good to go and the Dr would pat me on the head and tell me he would see me in 6 months. I thought I had beat it with early detection….but not so quick missy! Much to my surprise and disappointment 4 new low grade tumors were discovered, large calcium deposits had developed in my bladder as well. The working theory is that I had an adverse reaction to the chemo that I received into my bladder. Another TURBT was performed right before Christmas and the tumors and calcium deposits removed. I had much less fatigue after the 2nd surgery probably because no additional chemo treatment was given. I go back in march for my next cystoscopy to see where we stand.

    This journey thus far has certainly brought new clarity into my life. I am truly blessed to have such wonderful family and friends. Prayers for all.

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