Chemotherapy is essentially a rigorous treatment, and can have severe side-effects. However, chemotherapy in early stages of cancer is found to be very effective, which makes enduring the side-effects worth it.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat cancer or cope with cancer related side-effects. Cancer cells multiply and divide at a much faster rate than normal cells. In general cancer treatments aim at killing these cancer cells. While Radiation Therapy and Surgery target a specific region of the body, Chemotherapy covers the whole body. However, in the process of killing cancer cells, often healthy cells sustain damage as well. This is why chemotherapy sessions are spaced out, which means there can be a 2 to 4 weeks gap between two chemotherapy sessions. This break allows damaged healthy cells to get replaced.




  • Chemotherapy can be used to destroy cancer cells. Regular sessions can wipe the body clean of cancer cells. However, this does not mean there will not be a recurrence of cancer.
  • Chemotherapy is sometimes used to control the spread of the cancer or to slow down the growth of a tumour. In such cases Chemo is probably not the only mode of treatment. It might be given along with Radiotherapy or before the tumour is surgically removed.
  • Chemotherapy is also used in some cases to prevent the cancer from recurring after surgery or radiation by destroying the residual microscopic cancer cells.
  • The duration or the number of sessions of Chemotherapy a person receives depends on why the treatment is being given. Some people may require one dose, while others may need to return multiple times. Chemotherapy is essentially a rigorous treatment and can have severe side-effects. However, most of these side-effects wear off once the treatment ends. Chemotherapy in early stages of cancer is found to be very effective, which makes enduring the side-effects worth it.
  • Chemotherapy is used to prolong life and to improve symptoms in patients who cannot be cured. This is called palliative chemotherapy.



  • Nausea & Vomiting: these are most common side-effects, and the doctor will prescribe medicines to treat them.
  • Hair Loss: thinning of hair is another major side-effect. Wearing a scarf to keep the scalp cool during the treatment, might help reduce hair-fall. However, once the treatment is over, most people notice that their hair grows back.
  • Flaky Nails & Dry Skin: for some people, their nails turn brittle and crumble. For others, their skin turns dry and over sensitive – which means they must avoid the midday sun and use a sunblock whenever they step outdoors.
  • Fatigue: this is also a common side-effect and the only way to deal with it is to get a lot of rest and avoid any activity that causes too much strain on the body.
  • Weakened Immune System: Chemotherapy might damage the white blood cells, and this will lead to a weakened immune system, which in turn means the person is prone to infections. Maintaining personal hygiene and living in a clean environment, can help prevent infections.
  • Anaemia: Chemotherapy can affect the red blood cells as well. A reduced number of RBCs can lead to anaemia, which will make the person even more weak and vulnerable. Iron supplements and a diet rich in iron, can prevent anaemia.
  • Bleeding problems: Chemotherapy can damage blood platelets too. This can make the person bruise more easily and/or experience frequent nose bleeds.
  • Loss of appetite: Chemotherapy is known to cause loss of appetite which results in weight loss, that further weakens the person and can even lead to hospitalization. Eating smaller meals several times a day can help prevent this situation.
  • Affects foetal development: Some chemotherapy drugs can cause damage to the foetus particularly if given early in pregnancy to women. However, the doctor usually recommends chemotherapy only after 12-14 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Cognitive issues: Many people have trouble in paying attention, trouble with short term memory and experience mood swings. While these symptoms go away once the treatment ends, for some it lasts for years to come.

The efficacy of chemotherapy depends largely on the type of cancer and the stage at which treatment is given. It is best to discuss with the doctor on why he/she is recommending this mode of treatment and what the success rate is. Reach out to a counsellor if needed, to help cope with cancer and side-effects of the treatment.


Dr. Dominic Joseph is a medical oncologist
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