Side effects of chemotherapy

side effects of chemotherapy

Cytostatics  only attack those cells that divide particularly quickly. These primarily include cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. If these are damaged by chemotherapy, unpleasant side effects can occur and the quality of life of the affected patients can be significantly reduced. For this reason, the benefit of the treatment must always be weighed against the reduction in quality of life that the patient has to accept as a result of the therapy.

Short-term and long-term side effects

Some of the side effects can occur within hours or days of starting chemotherapy. However, others may only become noticeable years later. How severe the side effects are depends primarily on the dosage and the type of cytostatics used. In addition, the physical and mental condition of the patient also play an important role.

Many side effects can now be significantly reduced through accompanying measures. This is especially true for side effects such as  nausea  and vomiting.

Various side effects possible

The most common side effects of chemotherapy include nausea, vomiting and hair loss. However, the following side effects can also occur:

  • Loss of appetite, abdominal pain,  diarrhea
  • nail changes
  • Chills,  sweatingfever
  • states of exhaustion ( fatigue )
  • Disorders of blood formation
  • Increased risk of infection

In the long term, the treatment can cause organic damage, for example to the kidneys, liver, lungs or heart. A disruption in the function of the gonads can also occur, which can impair the patient’s ability to reproduce.

hair loss

Since the hair cells in the body divide particularly often, hair loss is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. Patients for whom this side effect is likely even before the start of therapy can, if they wish, have a prescription for a wig issued directly.

After the end of the treatment, the hair usually grows back without any problems, so that the chemotherapy does not cause permanent damage to the hair cells.

nausea and vomiting

Along with hair loss, nausea and vomiting are the most common side effects of chemotherapy. Vomiting is a natural protective reflex of the body: it tries to get rid of the cytostatics, which are often classified as toxins, as quickly as possible.

Today, however, these side effects are usually significantly lower than they were a few years ago. Because the patients are usually administered concomitant drugs that mitigate the unpleasant side effects. Often, the drugs are not only used in acute cases, but are prescribed prophylactically.

Increased risk of infection

During chemotherapy, the effect of the treatment on the white blood cells  (leukocytes) is checked again and again  . These are responsible for the  immune system in the body  . If the number of leukocytes falls, the risk of infection increases.

If the immune system is weakened too much, the chemotherapy may have to be interrupted or at least the breaks between the individual therapy cycles extended. Patients for whom an increased risk of infection can be expected from the outset are often treated as inpatients in hospital.

Disorder of blood formation

The formation of red blood cells  (erythrocytes) in the bone marrow can be negatively influenced by the cytostatics  . They are responsible for transporting oxygen in the body. If the number of erythrocytes drops sharply,  anemia  occurs. This manifests itself in limited performance and increasing fatigue.

In most cases, the anemia resolves on its own after the end of treatment. If the disorder is very severe, transfusions may help to eliminate the anemia more quickly. In rare cases, permanent restriction of blood formation can occur.


 Many cancer patients struggle with fatigue, exhaustion and  depression . While it used to be thought that fatigue was simply due to anemia, we now know that the problem is more complex. Coping with the disease also plays a decisive role. How exactly physical and psychological factors interact in fatigue syndrome has not yet been finally clarified.

Risks of chemotherapy

Most of the side effects of chemotherapy disappear relatively quickly after the end of the treatment, for example hair grows back and possible damage to the nails disappears. However, permanent damage can also occur, which is particularly important in younger patients.

Some cytostatics cause damage to the nerves, others damage the heart muscle cells or kidney function. It is also possible that the function of the gonads is disrupted by the chemotherapy and the patient becomes infertile. You should discuss how high the risk is in individual cases with your doctor.

The cytostatics also increase the risk of a second disease. Because some of the substances can themselves be carcinogenic, albeit at a great distance. However, the risk of a second disease is significantly lower than the risk of dying from the untreated primary disease.

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