What should I expect with chemotherapy?

Drugs used for chemotherapy come in many different forms.  Some chemotherapy drugs are taken by mouth as pills while others are given into a vein (intravenously) in a doctor's office or clinic.  Patients may receive one chemotherapy drug or a combination of chemotherapy drugs.  

It may take several hours to have chemotherapy at a clinic or hospital.  Depending on the type of chemotherapy, the patient may take medications before the chemotherapy.  These are called premedications and can help stop or reduce certain side effects, such as nausea.  

Chemotherapy treatments are given in cycles.  Different chemotherapy drugs have different cycles.  For example, some chemotherapy drugs are given once a week, while others are given every three weeks.  Patients may not always get the same drug(s) on treatment days.  Patients take breaks between cycles and this may help reduce side effects.  

Possible side effects

Every patient may experience different side effects of chemotherapy drugs and the severity of side effects will vary from person to person.

While possible side effects vary with different chemotherapy drugs, the most common side effects include:

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Hair loss
  • Increased chance of bruising, bleeding, and infection
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Neutropenia (low white blood cell count)

Most side effects are temporary and begin to lessen after treatment ends. You may need to take other medications to prevent or ease these side effects.  If side effects are severe, your doctor may temporarily stop or lower the dose of the chemotherapy.  Or your doctor may recommend a different chemotherapy medication.