Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023
Chemotherapy, or chemo, is the use of drugs to stop cancer cells. Chemotherapy is used to treat many types of blood cancer. Different chemotherapy drugs may be used together. Some people also receive chemotherapy along with other treatments for their blood cancer.1
Chemotherapy may be taken by mouth or injected into a vein, into muscle, or under the skin. Chemotherapy often travels throughout the body. This means that standard chemotherapy is usually a systemic treatment that can kill cancer cells anywhere in the body. However, some chemotherapy may also be given in a way that only affects certain parts of the body.1
How does chemotherapy work?
Cancer cells often grow at a fast rate. Chemotherapy works by targeting fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs may work on a specific phase of cell growth. Or, they may work by damaging the genetic material of cancer cells and prevent them from multiplying. Chemotherapy drugs are often defined as cytotoxic, meaning they typically kill cancer cells.2,3
Unfortunately, chemotherapy cannot tell the difference between fast-growing cells that are cancerous and other, healthy fast-growing cells in the body, such as those in the gastrointestinal tract and hair.2,3
What are the possible side effects?
Side effects can vary depending on the specific drug you are taking. Common side effects from chemotherapy include:4
- Lowered blood cell counts, which can lead to anemia, an increased risk of infections, or easy bruising or bleeding
- Hair loss
- Memory problems
- Damage to the digestive tract, which can cause mouth sores, changes to taste or appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation
- Damage to the reproductive system, which can cause changes in sexual functioning or infertility
Some chemotherapy drugs have the potential to cause damage to the heart, kidneys, liver, or nervous system.
With all chemotherapy, doctors may try to adjust the dosage to give enough to kill the cancer while keeping side effects at a minimum. Depending on how your body and blood cancer respond, dosages or the timing of chemotherapy may be adjusted during treatment.4
Some side effects from chemotherapy are short-term and go away or resolve when treatment is over. Other side effects may be long-term or delayed.4
These are not all the possible side effects of chemotherapy. Talk to your doctor about what to expect or if you experience any changes that concern you during treatment with chemotherapy.
Other things to know
Many side effects can be managed, and some can be prevented. Communication between you and your doctor is important, and you should talk to your doctor about any side effects you are having.
The presence or absence of side effects does not necessarily indicate if chemotherapy is working or not. To determine your response to chemotherapy and measure the amount of cancer cells in your blood or bone marrow, your doctor may order:1
Talk to your doctor if you have questions about chemotherapy. Before beginning treatment for blood cancer, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.