Get ready for possible side effects of chemotherapy

Ask questions and work with your health care team to prepare for chemotherapy so that you know what side effects to expect and how to manage them.

Chemotherapy works by killing rapidly dividing cancer cells. But as it wipes out cancer cells, chemotherapy can also destroy fast-growing healthy cells. This may cause you to experience side effects.

Lower blood cell production

Your bone marrow's ability to make blood cells might decrease.

  • Anemia. You may not have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to your tissues, which can leave you feeling tired or short of breath.
  • Bleeding. You may not have enough platelets — a blood cell that plays an important role in forming blood clots — to help prevent bleeding when you're injured.
  • Infections. You may have fewer white blood cells to protect your body from infections.

Gastrointestinal symptoms

Chemotherapy may affect your digestive system by causing:

  • Diarrhea. Your body's ability to absorb nutrients from food and get rid of waste might be affected.
  • Nausea and vomiting. Damage to your stomach and intestinal lining can also cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Constipation. Though less common, constipation also can be a side effect of chemotherapy.
  • Mouth sores. Damage to the cells in your mouth can create sores that make it difficult to eat and drink.

Hair loss

Chemotherapy targets rapidly growing cells, including healthy cells in your hair. Hair loss happens most often on the scalp but your eyebrows and eyelashes may thin, too.

Fortunately, hair loss is almost always temporary. If you're concerned about this side effect, ask your doctor about strategies to minimize hair loss, such as cooling caps.

Whole-body effects

Chemotherapy drugs go through your bloodstream and can affect your whole body. That can cause symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue. Feeling tired or having little energy is a common side effect of many types of chemotherapy.
  • Memory and thinking problems. People who undergo chemotherapy sometimes report memory problems or a mental fogginess that's sometimes called chemo brain.

Work with your health care team

Consider preparing a list of questions about side effects to ask your health care team so that you can get ready for chemotherapy.

Here are some questions you can ask:

  • What side effects are most common with the drugs I'm receiving?
  • How do these compare with the side effects of other treatments?
  • What can I do to prepare for these side effects?
  • What can I do to decrease the chances that I'll have them?
  • What side effects are dangerous and should prompt a call or visit to the clinic?
  • May I call you anytime if I have these side effects? What phone number should I use?

After you start treatment, it's important to tell your health care team about all the side effects you experience. The earlier they know, the more likely they can prevent side effects from becoming more-serious problems.

Nov. 14, 2020 See more In-depth

See also

  1. Acute lymphocytic leukemia
  2. Acute myelogenous leukemia
  3. Adjuvant therapy for cancer
  4. Alternative and complementary medicine for metastatic breast cancer
  5. Alternative cancer treatments: 10 options to consider
  6. Anal cancer
  7. Atypical cells: Are they cancer?
  8. Beating Ovarian Cancer
  9. Biopsy procedures
  10. Bladder cancer
  11. Infographic: Bladder Cancer
  12. Video: Bladder cancer stages
  13. Bladder cancer treatment options
  14. Infographic: Blood Cancer Awareness
  15. Bone cancer
  16. Bone metastasis
  17. Brain tumor
  18. Breast cancer
  19. Breast cancer chemoprevention
  20. Breast Cancer Education Tool
  21. Breast cancer radiation: Can it cause dry skin?
  22. Infographic: Breast Cancer Risk
  23. Breast cancer staging
  24. Breast cancer types
  25. Infographic: Breast Reconstruction Options
  26. Dr. Wallace Video
  27. CA 125 test: A screening test for ovarian cancer?
  28. Cancer
  29. Cancer blood tests
  30. Myths about cancer causes
  31. Infographic: Cancer Clinical Trials Offer Many Benefits
  32. Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping
  33. Cancer diagnosis? Advice for dealing with what comes next
  34. Cancer-related fatigue
  35. Cancer pain: Relief is possible
  36. Cancer risk: What the numbers mean
  37. Cancer surgery
  38. Cancer survival rate
  39. Cancer survivors: Care for your body after treatment
  40. Cancer survivors: Late effects of cancer treatment
  41. Cancer survivors: Managing your emotions after cancer treatment
  42. Cancer survivors: Reconnecting with loved ones after treatment
  43. Cancer treatment decisions: 5 steps to help you decide
  44. Safe cancer treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic
  45. Cancer treatment during COVID-19: How to move ahead safely
  46. Cancer treatment for men: Possible sexual side effects
  47. Cancer treatment for women: Possible sexual side effects
  48. Cancer treatment myths
  49. Cancer Vaccine Research
  50. Carcinoid syndrome
  51. Castleman disease
  52. Cervical cancer
  53. Cervical dysplasia: Is it cancer?
  54. Chemo Targets
  55. Chemotherapy
  56. Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment
  57. Chemotherapy and sex: Is sexual activity OK during treatment?
  58. Chemotherapy nausea and vomiting: Prevention is best defense
  59. Chemotherapy side effects: A cause of heart disease?
  60. Cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer)
  61. Choroid plexus carcinoma
  62. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  63. Chronic myelogenous leukemia
  64. Collecting Pennies Through the Pain
  65. Colon cancer
  66. Colon Cancer Family Registry
  67. Colon cancer screening: At what age can you stop?
  68. Colon cancer screening
  69. Curcumin: Can it slow cancer growth?
  70. Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma
  71. Cancer-related diarrhea
  72. Dragon Boats and Breast Cancer
  73. Eating during cancer treatment: Tips to make food tastier
  74. Embryonal tumors
  75. Endometrial cancer
  76. Ependymoma
  77. Esophageal cancer
  78. Infographic: Esophageal Cancer
  79. Ewing sarcoma
  80. Fertility preservation
  81. Flaxseed: Does it affect risk of prostate cancer?
  82. Frequent sex: Does it protect against prostate cancer?
  83. Gallbladder cancer
  84. Gene expression profiling for breast cancer: What is it?
  85. Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
  86. Genetic testing for breast cancer: Psychological and social impact
  87. Get the support you need when you have metastatic breast cancer
  88. GI Stents
  89. Ginger for nausea: Does it work?
  90. Glowing Cancer Surgery
  91. Hairy cell leukemia
  92. Have dark skin? You still need sunscreen
  93. Head and Neck Cancer Transoral Surgery
  94. Head and neck cancers
  95. Heart cancer: Is there such a thing?
  96. High-dose vitamin C: Can it kill cancer cells?
  97. Hodgkin's lymphoma (Hodgkin's disease)
  98. Hodgkin's vs. non-Hodgkin's lymphoma: What's the difference?
  99. HPV infection: How does it cause cervical cancer?
  100. Infographic: HPV Related Oral Cancers
  101. Inflammatory breast cancer
  102. Infographic: Innovative Rectal Cancer Treatments
  103. Invasive lobular carcinoma
  104. Leukemia
  105. Liver cancer
  106. Infographic: Liver Cancer
  107. Infographic: Liver Transplant Bile Duct Cancer
  108. Living with Brain Tumors
  109. Metastatic breast cancer
  110. Long Term Brain Cancer Survivor
  111. Low blood counts
  112. Lung cancer
  113. Infographic: Lung Cancer
  114. Lung nodules: Can they be cancerous?
  115. Magic mouthwash
  116. Male breast cancer
  117. Measles Virus as a Cancer Fighter
  118. Melanoma
  119. Merkel cell carcinoma
  120. Mesothelioma
  121. Metastatic breast cancer: Should you get a second opinion?
  122. Monoclonal antibody drugs
  123. Mort Crim and Cancer
  124. Mouth cancer
  125. Mouth sores caused by cancer treatment: How to cope
  126. Multiple myeloma
  127. Infographic: Multiple Myeloma
  128. Myelofibrosis
  129. Myelofibrosis
  130. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma
  131. Neuroblastoma
  132. Neuroendocrine tumors
  133. Neurofibromatosis
  134. New immunotherapy approved for metastatic bladder cancer
  135. No appetite? How to get nutrition during cancer treatment
  136. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  137. Osteosarcoma
  138. Living with an ostomy
  139. Ovarian cancer
  140. Ovarian cancer: Still possible after hysterectomy?
  141. Ovarian cancer vaccine: Can it prevent recurrence?
  142. Paget's disease of the breast
  143. Palliative care: Who is it for?
  144. Pancreatic cancer
  145. Infographic: Pancreatic Cancer: Minimally Invasive Surgery
  146. Pancreatic Cancer Survivor
  147. Pancreatic cancer treatment: Why is it so challenging?
  148. Infographic: Pancreatic Cancers-Whipple
  149. Pap test: Can it detect ovarian cancer?
  150. Paulas story A team approach to battling breast cancer
  151. Peripheral nerve tumors
  152. Pet therapy
  153. Pheochromocytoma
  154. Photodynamic therapy: An effective treatment for lung cancer?
  155. Pineoblastoma
  156. Pink Sisters
  157. Pomegranate juice: A cure for prostate cancer?
  158. Prostate cancer
  159. Prostate cancer: Does PSA level affect prognosis?
  160. Prostate cancer brachytherapy: Can I pass radiation to others?
  161. Infographic: Prostate Cancer: Choline c-11
  162. Prostate cancer metastasis: Where does prostate cancer spread?
  163. Prostate cancer prevention
  164. Prostate cancer treatment: Does initial treatment preclude others later?
  165. Infographic: Proton Beam Brain Tumor
  166. Punk Guitarist Survives Brain Tumor
  167. Rectal cancer
  168. Recurrent breast cancer
  169. Relationships and metastatic breast cancer
  170. Retinoblastoma
  171. Robotic bladder surgery
  172. Salivary gland tumors
  173. Infographic: Scalp Cooling Therapy for Cancer
  174. Scientists propose a breast cancer drug for some bladder cancer patients
  175. Scrotal masses
  176. Self-Image During Cancer
  177. Skin cancer
  178. Infographic: Skin Cancer
  179. Skin Cancer Reconstruction
  180. Melanoma pictures to help identify skin cancer
  181. Radiation simulation
  182. Small cell, large cell cancer: What this means
  183. Soft tissue sarcoma
  184. Spinal cord tumor
  185. Spray tanning? Hold your breath
  186. Stomach cancer
  187. Infographic: Stomach Cancer
  188. Summer sun: Know the danger zone
  189. Super Survivor Conquers Cancer
  190. Testicular cancer
  191. Testicular microlithiasis
  192. Thalidomide: Research advances in cancer and other conditions
  193. The Long Race Beating Cancer
  194. Throat cancer
  195. Thyroid cancer
  196. Treatment options for metastatic breast cancer
  197. Tumor vs. cyst: What's the difference?
  198. Vaginal cancer
  199. Vasectomy: Does it increase my risk of prostate cancer?
  200. Vertebral tumor
  201. Melanoma ­— Early stage and advanced melanoma
  202. How cancer spreads
  203. PICC line placement
  204. Skin cancer — How skin cancer develops
  205. Vulvar cancer
  206. Weight Loss After Breast Cancer
  207. What is metastatic breast cancer?
  208. When cancer returns: How to cope with cancer recurrence
  209. Wilms' tumor
  210. Working with your doctor when you have metastatic breast cancer: Interview with a Mayo Clinic expert.
  211. Your secret weapon during cancer treatment? Exercise!
  212. Zollinger-Ellison syndrome