Some of the most common short-term side
effects of chemotherapy are hair loss (alopecia), nausea and vomiting.
The side effects you are likely to have depend on the chemotherapy drugs
you are given.
Learn about long-term side effects of chemotherapy.
Hair loss (also called alopecia
(A-loh-PEE-shuh)) is a well-known side effect of chemotherapy. Though
it's most visible on your head, hair loss may occur all over your body
(including eyebrows and pubic hair).
Over the years, people have tried many
things to prevent hair loss with chemotherapy. Using a gentle shampoo
and washing your hair less often may reduce hair loss. A technique
called scalp cooling is currently under study as a way to reduce hair
A special cap is filled with a very cold substance and worn during each
chemotherapy session. At this time, it is not known whether scalp
cooling reduces hair loss.
With some chemotherapy drugs (including
anthracyclines such as doxorubicin, and taxanes such as paclitaxel or
docetaxel), however, you almost always lose your hair.
During treatment, you will deal with many
emotional aspects of breast cancer. Losing your hair may be very hard
for some people. As with breast surgery, losing your hair affects a part
of your body that is often tied to your identity.
Wigs, hats and scarves may help you cope
with hair loss. If you are thinking about wearing a wig, you may want to
pick one out before you start chemotherapy. This may help you find a
good match for your natural color and cut. Many insurance plans cover
all or part of the cost of a wig for people getting chemotherapy if the
claim includes a health care provider's prescription or letter.
Some people cut their hair short once
they start chemotherapy to prepare for the loss of their hair. This may
help you feel in control.
Hair will begin to grow back one to two
months after treatment ends, though it may be a different color and
texture than it was before. It often comes in curlier. Hair texture will
return to normal over many months. You may dye, color or treat your
hair whenever you like.
A note if you are traveling by air
Komen wants to ensure breast cancer survivors are treated with respect
and dignity. If you have lost your hair due to chemotherapy and wear a
scarf or other head covering, below are some steps you can take that may
help you as you plan your air travel. You do not need to do so, but if
you wish, tell the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent
you are undergoing breast cancer treatment. If you prefer to give this
information more discreetly, the TSA now offers a notification card you
can give to the agent (find this card on the TSA website).
If you have concerns about airline security screening, visit the TSA website for the latest information and a list of other tips to make the process as comfortable as possible.
Some (but not all) chemotherapy drugs
cause nausea and vomiting. To help prevent and control nausea and
vomiting, your health care provider will prescribe anti-nausea
medications and give you instructions on how to use them. The
anti-nausea medications you are prescribed will depend on the
chemotherapy drugs you are given.
Tips to manage nausea
Some chemotherapy drugs (such as paclitaxel and docetaxel) can damage your fingernails and toenails. The nails may:
Like hair loss, nail problems are
short-term. Keeping your nails short during treatment may make nail care
easier. Your nails will return to normal once chemotherapy ends. You
may use nail polish whenever you wish.
Chemotherapy drugs (including
vinorelbine, cisplatin and taxanes such as paclitaxel and docetaxel) can
cause nerve damage. If this happens, you may feel a burning or shooting
pain (neuropathy) or numbness, usually in your fingers or toes. These
side effects almost always go away after chemotherapy ends, though it
may take weeks or months. In rare cases, the numbness or pain can
Chemotherapy can also cause muscle pain
(myalgia) or numbness. If you have these side effects, tell your health
care provider right away. He/she may want to adjust your chemotherapy
plan to ease these symptoms. Your provider may also prescribe mild pain
relievers or suggest other treatments to ease the pain or numbness.
Learn more about managing pain related to treatment.
Some chemotherapy drugs (including
doxorubicin and docetaxel) can harm the tissues lining your mouth and
throat, causing sores (called mucositis or stomatitis). These sores can
make it painful to eat and drink. Mouth sores go away once chemotherapy
ends. However if you have any pain or see any problems in your mouth or
throat, contact your health care provider. He/she can prescribe a
special mouthwash or other medication to relieve pain and treat the
Chemotherapy can cause fatigue. You may
feel like you don’t have any energy and may be tired all of the time.
Sometimes, getting enough rest doesn’t help.
Regular exercise, even just walking for 20 minutes every day, can help reduce fatigue [28-30].
Getting a good night’s sleep is also important. Talk to your health
care provider if you have fatigue or problems sleeping (insomnia).
Although studies of ways to ease fatigue are limited, some tips may help [30-31].
Tips to manage fatigue
Adapted from selected sources [28,31].
Learn more about fatigue and insomnia.
Chemotherapy drugs can cause other short-term side effects, including:
Some of these side effects (such as loss of menstrual periods) may last after treatment ends.
Chemotherapy can cause a drop in the red
blood cell count (called anemia). Anemia can cause fatigue and shortness
of breath. It can also make you look pale. Sometimes, anemia can be
treated by increasing iron or folate in the diet. Severe anemia can be treated with a blood transfusion.
Growth factors, such as erythropoietin
(Procrit, Epogen and Aranesp) and similar drugs can increase red blood
cell count. However, safety analyses have raised questions about whether
people with breast cancer should get erythropoietin (for more on these
safety analyses, visit the FDA website).
Chemotherapy can also cause a drop in the
white blood cell count (called leukopenia or neutropenia). Some
chemotherapy plans include white blood cell growth factors such as
filgrastim (Neupogen) and pegfilgrastim (Neulasta). These growth factors
help maintain white blood cell counts and reduce the risk of infection
while you are undergoing chemotherapy.
Growth factors are given by injection. A nurse can inject these medications, or you can learn to do it yourself.
Learn about long-term side effects of chemotherapy.
Komen Support Resources
Chemotherapy and Side Effects
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