What are some of the side effects of chemotherapy?

The most common side effects of the most common chemotherapy drugs are as follows:

  • Adriamycin (doxorubicin): More common side effects are hair loss, nausea and diarrhea. Bone marrow suppression is also a risk. Less common but more worrisome is a problem with the regulation of a specific heart valve. While the risk is dosage dependent, for the standard treatment regimen today, it is actually less than 1%. Anyone receiving this drug will go for cardiac testing (MUGA scan) and be monitored appropriately for the duration. The drug may also cause the urine to be a reddish color.
  • Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide): More common effects include metallic mouth taste while drug is being administered, and later nausea, appetite changes (anorexia), hair loss, low blood counts, abdominal pain, skin rashes and diarrhea. Irregularities in your menstrual cycle can also occur, and as total dosages increase, fertility declines, and the likelihood of premature menopause increases. Rarely, there can be toxicity to the bladder (to prevent this, drink plenty of fluids) and metabolic abnormalities.
  • Methotrexate: More common affects include nausea, mouth sores, low blood counts, hair loss, headaches and drowsiness. In some cases it can cause itching, skin rashes and dizziness. In rare cases, it can cause severe toxicity of the liver and bone marrow which requires regular monitoring with blood testing.
  • 5-Fluorouracil: Fairly well tolerated. More common effects are nausea, appetite changes, diarrhea and low blood counts. Rarely, skin darkening or pigment changes can occur.
  • Taxol (paclitaxel): The primary concern is about an allergic reaction, so everyone receiving this drug gets pretreatment with antihistamines and anti-inflammatory drugs. Make sure that someone is in the room with you for at least the first hour of your first Taxol treatment in case you do have an allergic reaction. Common side effects are hair loss, nausea, low blood counts, joint pain and less frequently, neurological side effects such as weakness, numbness and tingling (which may be temporary during treatment or more permanent, depending on dosage and duration).
  • Taxotere (docetaxel): There is also a concern for severe allergic reaction. Swelling in the legs and fluid build-up, sometimes in the lungs, can be a problem. More common effects are excessive tearing, fatigue, loss of appetite and severe nausea.

Other more general side effects of chemotherapy may include temporary memory loss (often called "chemo brain"), fatigue and depression, all induced by a complex interaction of chemical, physical and emotional factors.