Treatment Side Effects

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2018

Treatment for blood cancer targets the cancer cells, but it can also cause unwanted side effects, creating problems that affect healthy tissues or organs. The side effects from treatment for blood cancer depend on the specific treatment given, and side effects vary from person to person. Not everyone who gets the same treatment experiences the same side effects or to the same level of severity. Potential side effects experienced may also be influenced by the patient's age, other health conditions, and the combination of treatments received. Some side effects from blood cancer treatment are temporary, and they go away once treatment is finished. Other side effects may be permanent and can impact a person for the rest of their lives. Throughout treatment and beyond treatment for blood cancer, there are ways to manage side effects and improve the patient's quality of life.

Common side effects of blood cancer treatment

Common side effects experienced by patients undergoing treatment for blood cancer may include:

  • Low blood cell counts, which can cause additional symptoms of fatigue, bleeding, bruising, and/or infections
  • Hair loss, which can affect the hair on the scalp, face or body and may be complete or partial, potentially also resulting in thinning hair
  • Nausea or vomiting, which in addition to causing distress can lead to dehydration and weakness
  • Loss of appetite or changes in taste, which can impact a person's ability or desire to eat and may lead to malnutrition
  • Mouth sores or ulcers, which can range in severity from an inconvenience to becoming a severe complication that may delay or cause treatment to be discontinued
  • Diarrhea, characterized by loose, unformed, or frequent bowel movements that can lead to dehydration and weakness
  • Constipation, characterized by difficult passage of stool or excessively hard or dry stools, which can cause pain and discomfort in the abdomen
  • Infections, which may be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi and can range in severity from mild to life-threatening
  • Fatigue, characterized by a sense of extreme tiredness, weakness, or lack of energy that can greatly impact quality of life
  • Bruising or bleeding easily, which in addition to causing physical effects can be distressing for patients
  • Skin changes or rashes, which may be characterized by dry, itchy, peeling or red skin that can be uncomfortable or painful
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory problems, which are cognitive issues that can be mild or more challenging and impact daily life
  • Peripheral neuropathy, damage to the nerves that connect the brain to other parts of the body and may impact various nerves, possibly causing pain, the ability to control muscles, or other bodily functions
  • Pain, which can wear down the immune system, slow the body's ability to heal, and may lead to or contribute to depression
  • Organ damage, which can affect the normal functioning of certain organs, such as the heart, kidneys, bladder, liver or sex organs1-3

Managing side effects from blood cancer treatment

Many side effects can be managed, and some can be prevented. Communication between patients and their health care team is critical, and any side effects experienced should be brought to the attention of a doctor or nurse.

Side effects from blood cancer treatment are often temporary and tend to go away after treatment is completed. However, some side effects may last longer or be irreversible. Reducing the dosage, changing medications, or delaying treatment regimens can be potential options to help manage some side effects. Sometimes, other medications can be given to relieve side effects, and many people use complementary approaches to help manage their treatment side effects, including massage, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, or counseling.

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