Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families

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Chemo side effects

What causes side effects?

Cancer cells tend to grow fast, and chemo drugs kill fast-growing cells. But because these drugs travel throughout the body, they can affect normal, healthy cells that are fast-growing, too. Damage to healthy cells causes side effects. Side effects are not always as bad as you might expect, but many people worry about this part of cancer treatment.

The normal cells most likely to be damaged by chemo are blood-forming cells in the bone marrow; hair follicles; and cells in the mouth, digestive tract, and reproductive system. Some chemo drugs can damage cells in the heart, kidneys, bladder, lungs, and nervous system. In some cases, medicines can be given with the chemo to help protect the body’s normal cells.

What should I know about side effects?

  • Every person doesn’t get every side effect, and some people get few, if any.
  • The severity of side effects (how “bad” they are) varies greatly from person to person. Be sure to talk to your doctor and nurse about which side effects are most common with your chemo, how long they might last, how bad they might be, and when you should call the doctor’s office about them. For more information, see the section called “When to call your doctor.”
  • Your doctor may give you medicines to help prevent some side effects before they happen.
  • Many people have no long-term problems from chemo. And while side effects can be unpleasant, they must be measured against the need to kill the cancer cells.

How long do side effects last?

Most side effects slowly go away after treatment ends because the healthy cells recover over time. The time it takes to get over some side effects and regain energy varies from person to person. It depends on many factors, including your overall health and the drugs you were given.

Many side effects go away fairly quickly, but some may take months or even years to completely go away. Sometimes the side effects can last a lifetime, such as when chemo causes long-term damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, or reproductive organs. Certain types of chemo sometimes cause delayed effects, such as a second cancer that may show up many years later.

Patients often become discouraged about how long their treatment lasts or the side effects they have. If you feel this way, talk to your doctor. You may be able to change your medicine or treatment schedule. Your doctor or nurse also may be able to suggest ways to reduce any pain and discomfort you have.


Last Medical Review: 03/07/2013
Last Revised: 03/07/2013