Living with Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy is designed to kill cancerous cells. If you are undergoing or have undergone chemotherapy, you know that chemo also kills healthy cells in the body, leading to some very uncomfortable side effects. The cells that are most affected by chemotherapy are the cells in the hair follicles, bone marrow cells, and cells in the mouth and digestive system. While not every chemotherapy patient experiences side effects, there are a number of chemotherapy side effects that are common to many patients. Here are some tips on how to cope with common chemotherapy side effects.

Mouth Sores

Mouth sores are a painful chemotherapy side effect that can make eating difficult and unpleasant. To avoid or heal mouth sores, be sure to brush your teeth thoroughly at least twice daily with a soft toothbrush. Also rinse four times a day with a simple solution of one cup water, 1/4 tsp. baking soda, and 1/8 tsp. salt. Avoid foods that may exacerbate mouth sores, such as alcohol, spicy foods, and acidic foods.

Some chemotherapy drugs, such as Alkeran, are known to cause mouth sores. If you are taking one such form of chemotherapy medication, try holding ice in your mouth for five minutes before treatment and until 30 minutes after treatment.

Nausea and Vomiting

Roughly 70 to 80 percent of chemo patients will experience nausea and/or vomiting during treatment, making it difficult to get adequate nutrition. If you experience these chemotherapy side effects, make sure you tell your doctor, who may be able to give you medicine to combat these symptoms. Research has also found that acupuncture can also help with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. If you are feeling ill, avoid strongly flavored foods and greasy foods if they make you feel worse. Cooking smells can sometimes bring about nausea in chemotherapy patients; if this is the case with you, have someone else do your cooking and try to stay away from the kitchen.

Fatigue and Anemia

Chemotherapy can cause patients to have too few red blood cells, a condition known as anemia. As a result of anemia, tissues get less oxygen and patients can experience extreme fatigue. Up to 96 percent of cancer patients will experience fatigue at some point of their treatment

Anemia may be treated with medications or with blood transfusions. If your doctor approves, you may try light exercise to help with fatigue. If you need to take naps, try to keep them short. Reserve your energy when at all possible, and don’t be shy in asking others for help.


Chemotherapy often reduces a patient’s white blood cell count, which can lead to a higher risk of infections. A good daily hygiene routine is key to warding off potential infections: wash hands often with antibacterial soap and keep your body as clean as possible. Also avoid large crowds and treat dry skin with lotion before it becomes cracked, inviting infection.

Chemotherapy is often a very difficult part of cancer treatment. Hopefully, by being aware of potential chemotherapy side effects and how best to deal with them, you can enhance your comfort during chemotherapy treatment.