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Chemotherapy is the use of chemicals to kill cancer cells or prevent them from dividing. 

There have been great strides made in the use of chemotherapy drugs and tailoring doses to the individual. The effect has been to reduce the number and severity of side effects. 

Even though chemotherapy is tailored to the individual, every person reacts differently to chemotherapy and different drugs cause different side effects. No one can predict who will and who will not have side effects, or the extent of the side effects. You may be one of the people who have no or few problems. How you react to a particular chemotherapy has no relationship to whether or not it is helping you.

There are medications and other steps to take to prevent or lessen side effects. 

It is advisable to talk to your doctor and nurse about the following:

  • Which side effects are most likely with your particular chemotherapy 
  • When they may start
  • How long the potential side effects might last 
  • How bad they might be
  • What medications may help in addition to the tips in our specific side effect articles. Consider asking your doctor for a prescription for side effects that could occur in your situation. If you get prescriptions ahead of time, you don't have to fill them unless you need them.
  • When to call the doctor or otherwise seek medical care for each common side effect. For general information see our article: "When To Call Your Doctor While Receiving Chemotherapy."

Keep in mind that side effects from chemotherapy can continue for a while after treatment ends. At the same time, many people have no long-term problems from chemotherapy. 

Following is an alphabetized list of common side effects from all types of chemotherapy. Click on a link to learn about how to cope with a particular side effect. For information about the causes of side effects, click here.

For information about how long side effects, last, click here.

Keep track of your concerns and symptoms for doctor visits. To help, we provide:

  • A Prioritizer tool to help keep track of questions and concerns. Before you go to the appointment, a push of a button reorders your questions and concerns into your priority to print and take with you. 
  • Symptoms Diary to keep track of symptoms. A push of a button turns it into an easy-to-read graph.

For information ranging from questions to ask before agreeing to chemotherapy treatment, to after treatment, see the articles in "To Learn More."


  • To help reduce the effect of chemotherapy on your taste buds, avoid eating a few hours before and after chemotherapy. For additional tips about changed taste buds, click here.
  • Some people recommend avoiding favorite foods during during chemotherapy so you don’t develop a poor association with your favorite foods.
  • Some people have found fasting helpful to make chemotherapy easier. Caution: Fasting can be dangerous. Consult with your oncologist before considering this idea.

Causes Of Side Effects From Chemotherapy

Chemo drugs are made to kill fast-growing cells. Because these drugs travel throughout the body, chemo drugs can affect normal, healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Damage to healthy tissue causes side effects. Although side effects are not always as bad as you might expect, many people worry about this part of their cancer treatment.

The normal cells most likely to be affected are blood forming cells in the bone marrow; hair follicles; and cells in the mouth, digestive tract, and reproductive system. Some chemo drugs can damage cells in the heart, kidneys, bladder, lungs, and nervous system. In some cases, medicines called cytoprotective drugs may be given with the chemo to protect the body's normal cells. 

How Long Side Effects Last

The time it takes to get over some side effects and regain energy varies from person to person and depends on many factors, including your overall health and the drugs you were given.

Although many side effects go away fairly quickly, some may take months or years to completely go away. It takes time for healthy cells to recover.

Sometimes the side effects can last a lifetime, such as when chemo causes long-term damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, or reproductive organs.

Certain types of chemo sometimes cause delayed effects, such as a second cancer that may show up many years later.

Patients often become discouraged about how long their treatment lasts or the side effects they have. If you feel as if you are becoming discouraged, talk to your doctor. You may be able to change your medicine or treatment schedule. If needed, your doctor should be able to suggest ways to reduce any pain and discomfort you have.

To Learn More