Side effects of chemotherapy

Side effects of chemotherapy

Cytostatic drugs only attack those cells that divide very quickly. These include first and foremost cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. If these are damaged by the chemotherapy, unpleasant side effects can occur and the quality of life of the affected patients can be significantly reduced. Therefore, in individual cases, the benefit of the treatment against the reduction in the quality of life, which the patient must accept through therapy, must always be weighed.

Short-term and long-term side effects

Some of the side effects may occur within hours or days after the start of chemotherapy. Others, however, can only be felt after years. The severity of the side effects depends mainly on the dosage and the type of cytostatics used. In addition, however, the physical and psychological condition of the patient also play an important role.

Many side effects can be significantly reduced today by 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 may also occur:

  • Loss of appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhea
  • nail changes
  • Shivering, sweating, fever
  • Exhaustion states (fatigue)
  • Disorders of blood formation
  • Increased risk of infection

In the long term, the treatment can lead to organic damage such as kidney, liver, lung or heart. Likewise, a disorder of the function of the gonads may occur, by which the reproductive ability of the patient may be affected.

hair loss

Hair loss is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy, as hair cells are particularly common in the body. Patients who are likely to have this side effect prior to initiating therapy may, if desired, have their own prescription for a wig exposed.

After the end of the treatment, the hair grows usually without problems, so that the chemotherapy no permanent damage to the hair cells.

Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are among the most common side effects of chemotherapy besides hair loss. Vomiting is a natural protective reflex of the body: it tries to get rid of cytostatic drugs, which are often classified as toxic, as quickly as possible.

Today, however, these side effects are usually significantly lower than a few years ago. Because the patients are usually given concomitant medication, which mitigate the unpleasant side effects. Often, the drugs are not first used in the acute case, but prophylactically prescribed.

Increased risk of infection

During chemotherapy, it is checked again and again how the treatment affects the white blood cells (leucocytes). These are responsible in the body for the immune system. If the number of leucocytes decreases, the risk of infection increases.

If the immune system is weakened too much, it may be necessary to stop the chemotherapy or at least to extend the breaks between therapy cycles. Patients who are at an increased risk of infection from the outset are often hospitalized in hospital.

Disorder of blood formation

The cytostatic agents can negatively influence the formation of red blood cells (erythrocytes) in the bone marrow. They are responsible for oxygen transport in the body. If the number of erythrocytes decreases sharply, anemia (anemia) occurs. This manifests itself in limited performance and increasing fatigue.

In most cases, the anemia will return to itself after the end of treatment. If the disorder is severe, transfusions may help to reduce anemia more quickly. In rare cases, there may be a permanent restriction of blood formation.


Many cancer patients are struggling with fatigue, fatigue and depression. While it used to be thought that fatigue was solely due to anemia, it is now known that the problem is more complex. Among other things, disease processing plays a decisive role. Exactly how physical and mental factors interact in fatigue syndrome is not yet fully understood.

Risks of chemotherapy

Most side effects of chemotherapy resolve relatively quickly after the end of treatment, for example, the hair grow back and possible damage to the nails disappear. However, permanent damage can occur, which is particularly significant 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 gonads are disturbed in their function by chemotherapy and the patient becomes infertile. How high the risk in each case is, you should discuss with your treating physician.

The cytostatic drugs also increase the risk of a second disease. Because some of the substances can be carcinogenic even if they are separated in time. However, the risk of a second disease is significantly lower than the risk of dying from the untreated first disease.

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