Carolinas HealthCare System

Managing Side Effects of Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Online Resources

For more information, please visit some of our most trusted resources below:

Chemotherapy is a term often used when people talk about cancer treatment. When patients with cancer are treated with drugs, the treatment may include drugs classified as chemotherapy agents, hormonal therapies, biotherapy/targeted agents, or a combination of these.

Chemotherapy drugs are capable of interfering with cell division. They may be given as a single drug or in combination with others, and are distributed throughout the body by the blood stream.

Hormonal therapy agents are drugs that help decrease and control the growth of cancerous tumors by either blocking or reducing the circulating hormone thought to contribute to the growth of the cancer cells.

Biotherapy / targeted agents are thought to work against cancer in a number of ways:

  • By modifying the patient's own immune defenses
  • By targeting a single receptor on the tumor's surface cells, and
  • By promoting tumor regression

How is chemotherapy administered?

Chemotherapy is most commonly administered intravenously or taken as an oral medication. Sometimes it may be given as an injection. Less commonly, it may be administered by a physician to allow entry into specific sites, such as the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal/intraventricular); the abdominal cavity (intraperitoneal); the bladder (intravesicular); and the pleural space of the lungs (intrapleural).

As a patient, you will be given specific information regarding your treatment plan. You will be informed where and when you will be treated, and given the approximate length of time expected for each treatment session.

Will my hair fall out during treatment?

It depends on which medication you are taking. You may lose all of your hair or it could just thin. Hair loss will usually start within two to three weeks after the first treatment.

When will my hair come back?

Hair growth should start four weeks after treatment is completed.

Will I have nausea and vomiting during my treatment, and when does it start?

Great strides have been made in the prevention and treatment of nausea. Nausea and vomiting are not the norm. You will be prescribed medications and will be educated on when to use them. Not all chemotherapy or targeted therapies will induce nausea. If you do experience nausea, it usually occurs one to three days after the treatment. Using your prescribed medications can control this symptom. If you have any other questions regarding when to use your medicine, please contact your physician.

How long will I feel tired?

Fatigue is associated with almost any treatment of cancer. The degree of fatigue will change from day to day. You could experience fatigue up to six months after you have completed chemotherapy. The latest research shows that even minimal exercise every day will decrease the feelings of fatigue.

When should I call the doctor?

If you have any questions regarding your treatment, do not hesitate to call our office. Always call your doctor if you experience the following symptoms: temperature greater than 100.4 degrees, bleeding or excessive bruising, no bowel movement in three days, diarrhea consisting of more than six stools in a 24-hour period, or pain that is not controlled with current medications. If acute chest pain and/or severe shortness of breath occur, go immediately to the emergency room or call 911.

How will I know if chemotherapy is working?

Your physician will order lab work and radiology testing (CT scans, PET scans, MRIs) to monitor your body’s response to treatment.

Is it okay to drink alcohol?

Alcohol can interact or interfere with medications. Check with your physician to see if an occasional drink will be a problem.

Can I take vitamins and minerals?

Over-the-counter supplements are usually safe to use, but while on treatment it is best to review with your physician all of the supplements you take. Some products could enhance or decrease the effects of your treatment.

Is there anything I can eat to make me better?

Nutrition is important in that the vitamins and minerals we consume help our body build new and healthy cells. Protein in your diet is important, as is not dieting during treatment.

How is the chemotherapy excreted?

It will depend on the medication you are taking. Your nurse will review this matter with you on your initial teaching session.

Why is my blood checked so often?

Chemotherapy can affect the blood counts that fight infection, control bleeding and carry iron. These blood counts must be monitored to assess the effects of the chemotherapy and to prevent complications from the counts being too low.