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Health Information Center


  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:




Chemotherapy is medicine used to destroy cancer cells. It is toxic to fast-growing cancer cells. It can also affect fast-growing healthy cells, like blood cells, lining in stomach, and hair.

Reasons for Procedure

Chemotherapy is used as a part of cancer treatment. The role it will play will be based on the type of cancer and how advanced it is. Chemotherapy may:

  • Cure cancer—Cancer cells are destroyed to the point that cancer can no longer be found in the body. The cancer cells will not grow back.
  • Control cancer—Chemotherapy may keep cancer from spreading or slows its growth. It may also destroy cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.
  • Ease cancer symptoms—It may be given to shrink tumors that are causing pain or pressure.

Side Effects

The medicine attacks fast-growing cells. It can also hurt healthy cells and lead to side effects. Side effects vary. The type of medicine and type of healthy cells affected will determine what symptoms you have.

Damage to healthy cells that line the mouth, stomach, and intestines can cause:

Damage to blood cells can lead to:

  • Anemia—low red blood cell count
  • Weakened immune system with a higher risk of infections
  • Tiredness
  • Easy bruising and bleeding

Hair loss may be caused by damage to cells at the root of hairs.

Other areas that may be harmed:

  • Nerves—damage or irritation may cause numbness and tingling in the hands and feet called peripheral neuropathy
  • Kidney—medicines can pass into urine and damage kidneys
  • Heart—certain medicines can harm the heart muscle
  • Reproductive organ—some chemotherapy medicines may cause:

The medical team will choose a plan that works best and has the fewest problems. Other methods may also help manage problems.

What to Expect

Call Your Doctor

Talk to your doctor if you are having problems such as:

  • Signs of infection, such as fever and chills
  • Sores in your mouth, throat, or lips
  • White patches in your mouth
  • Problems swallowing
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Vomiting that stops you from holding down fluids
  • Blood in your vomit
  • Easy bruising
  • Nosebleeds, bleeding gums, new vaginal bleeding
  • Blood in your urine or stool
  • Burning or frequency of urination
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Problems breathing
  • Cough
  • Calf pain, swelling, or redness in the legs or feet
  • Abnormal vaginal leaking, itching, or odor
  • New pain or pain that you can't control with the medicines you were given
  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in your limbs
  • Joint pain, stiffness, rash, or other new problems
  • Redness, swelling, pain, bleeding, or a pimple at the site of your IV
  • Headache, stiff neck
  • Problems hearing or seeing
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Exposure to someone with an illness that can spread, such as chickenpox
  • Weight gain or loss of 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) or more

If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.

Prior to Procedure

Medicine may be given before treatment such as:

  • Steroids—to reduce inflammation
  • Allergy medicines, such as an antihistamine
  • Antiemetics to control nausea
  • Sedatives
  • Antibiotics—to lower the risk of infections




  • Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy.html. Accessed January 1, 2021.
  • Chemotherapy and you: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/chemo-and-you. Accessed January 1, 2021.


  • Nicole Meregian, PA
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.