What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

Author:  Maria Yiallouros; Gesche Tallen, MD, PhD, erstellt am 2009/11/09, Reviewer:  Prof. Dr. med. Ursula Creutzig, English Translation:  Hannah McRae, Last modification:  2022/02/17

Chemotherapy damages not only the cancer cells but can also harm healthy cells, especially those dividing frequently and rapidly. These include cells of the oral and intestinal mucosa, hair follicles and the precursor blood cells in the bone marrow. The resulting side effects vary greatly, depending on the type and dosage of medication.

Some of the undesirable side effects of chemotherapy are listed below. It is important to know in advance, that not all patients react equally to the treatment. That means that the side effects mentioned below do neither affect every patient nor every patient to the same degree.

The most common side effects of chemotherapy are:

  • intestinal dysfunction, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • hair loss
  • bone marrow depression resulting in reduced production of healthy red and white blood cells and platelets, thus causing anaemia and increased susceptibility to infections, which sometimes may be life-threatening
  • cardiovascular problems, kidney and liver dysfunction, hearing loss, nerve damage
  • impaired gonadal (ovarial or testicular) functions, infertility

The extent and prognosis of the damage to healthy cells depend on many different factors, including the type and dosage of the cytostatics used, other treatments applied, as well as the patient's age and general condition at treatment.

We recommend: Ask for regular family meetings with your or your child's doctor to obtain information on: each new medication, the reason for giving it and method of administration, possible interactions with other drugs, the risk of general and specific side effects and complications, and how these can be prevented or treated. This helps to prepare yourself and/or your child for the new situation.

The caregiver team will also apply various supportive care measures to prevent or treat the side effects of chemotherapy. Read more about “supportive care” here.

Both the patient and/or his or her family can actively help alleviating side effects and preventing serious complications, in particular when an outpatient and at home. Here you will find “recommendations for home”, for example regarding nutrition, how to recognise and/or prevent infections, manage a bleeding or pain. Individual recommendations will be given to you by your/your child's doctor.