Learning how chemotherapy works can help you understand its side effects. Chemotherapy medications attack cells in the body that are dividing quickly, which is why they target cancer cells. But other noncancerous cells in the body also divide quickly, for example, cells in your hair follicles, intestines, mouth, and bone marrow (where new blood cells are made). When these cells are attacked, you can have side effects. These side effects differ from person to person. The chemotherapy drug used, its dose, and length of therapy will all play a role in the reaction to treatment. In addition to the short-term side effects listed below, you should also discuss some potentially long-term and late effects of chemotherapy with your doctor.
Many of the chemotherapy drugs are broken down by your liver and filtered by your kidneys, so it’s important that you flush them out of your system after treatment. You may be given an IV solution of saline to help with that. After treatment, you may be told to drink a lot of fluids. It is possible that you will need antibiotics to treat infections or a blood transfusion to treat anemia. These problems can be side effects of either the treatment or the leukemia itself.
The side effects from chemotherapy usually go away when the treatment ends. Here are some of the more common temporary side effects from chemotherapy. Ask your doctor which ones you are most likely to experience:
Bruising easily or bleeding from low blood platelet counts
Fatigue from low red blood cell counts
Hair loss. This usually begins about 2 weeks after your first chemotherapy treatment. Hair will commonly grow back in 2 to 3 months after chemotherapy.
Infections from low white blood cell counts
Loss of sexual desire
Nausea and vomiting
Pain when swallowing. This should gradually get better as your white blood cell counts improve.