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The Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments save lives. They also can bring a variety of temporary but unpleasant side effects. Ask your doctors about what side effects to expect, how to manage them, and what side-effect symptoms to report immediately. On office visits, make certain to tell your health care provider about the side effects you are experiencing. 

Many side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments occur for the same reason: The treatments kill cancer cells, but they also kill normal cells that are dividing quickly.


Chemotherapy essentially targets cells that divide frequently. It also affects healthy cells that are dividing frequently. The effects vary greatly among the drugs used for chemotherapy, but in general these cells are the most likely to be affected:

  • Cells in the bone marrow

  • Red blood cells

  • Hair follicle cells

  • Cells found in the reproductive system

  • Cells in the stomach and intestines

Chemotherapy affects the cells in the bone marrow by reducing the number of white and red blood cells that are produced there. It also reduces the production of platelets, which are important in blood clotting. Bone marrow suppression is one of the most common effects of chemotherapy. This treatment also results in some suppression of the immune system. Because of this, while you are undergoing chemotherapy, your blood count will be closely monitored. When treatment stops, your blood count should return to normal.

Hair follicles on the scalp are frequently affected by chemotherapy. Hair can become brittle and break off, or fall out from the follicle. Some people lose all their hair; others end up with thinner hair. The hair on the eyebrows, eyelashes,  skin, and pubic region may also be affected. When treatment stops, the hair will grow back.

Chemotherapy affects your nutrition in several ways. It often reduces appetite, which can lead to temporary anorexia. It also affects how food tastes, making mealtimes less enjoyable. Sores in the mouth and esophagus caused by chemotherapy may make eating painful.

In addition, nausea and vomiting are possible side effects, as well as diarrhea or constipation.

A person on chemotherapy often experiences extreme tiredness that's not related to physical activity. This fatigue may not ease with rest.

Other areas of the body that may be affected by chemotherapy:

  • Heart. Damage to the muscle of the heart can be a side effect of chemotherapy. Heart damage risk is increased if the person is a smoker, has existing heart disease or high blood pressure, or has had radiation therapy to the chest.

  • Brain and nervous system. Memory, comprehension, and reasoning skills may be affected. These effects may not show up for many years after treatment.

  • Lungs. Lung damage can be permanent and is more likely to occur in older people and in people who have had radiation therapy to the chest.

  • Reproductive system. Infertility may occur.

  • Liver. Liver damage occurs, but is usually temporary.

  • Kidneys. The kidneys, ureters, and bladder may be damaged when chemotherapy drugs (or the metabolites) are excreted.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is used to destroy cancer cells, but the radiation also can harm normal cells. Many people undergoing radiation therapy have no side effects.

The most common side effects are fatigue, skin changes at the site where the radiation enters and exits, and loss of appetite. Other side effects usually are related to the treatment of specific areas, such as hair loss after radiation treatment to the head. Irradiation of the bone marrow affects the immune system and depresses blood cells and platelet counts. Radiation to the chest may cause difficulties swallowing, loss of chest hair, and skin changes on the chest. Radiation to the brain or digestive system may cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Self-care tips

Chemotherapy doesn't always cause fatigue, flu-like illness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or hair loss. Side effects depend on the medication used. Ask your doctor which side effects you can expect with the treatments you'll receive, then work with the doctor to minimize the possible symptoms. Be sure to write down the information you are given so you won't forget it.

For digestive-system symptoms:

  • Keep your mouth moist by drinking lots of water.

  • Avoid foods that irritate the mucous membranes, such as hot foods; foods with sharp edges, such as hard-crusted breads; or acidic foods, such as tomatoes or oranges.

  • Tell your doctor if you develop a sore spot in your mouth.

For nausea:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, even if you don't feel like eating. This will prevent dehydration and help your body eliminate the chemotherapy medication, which has already served its purpose. If you lose your appetite, drink fluids with calories, such as fruit juices, fruit smoothies, or chicken noodle soup.

  • Eat what appeals to you. Small, frequent meals are often better tolerated.

  • Choose easily digestible foods, such as mashed potatoes, pasta, rice, or cooked cereal.

For fatigue:

  • Prioritize your daily tasks, and try to do only necessary ones.

  • Delegate to others. Someone else may be able to do your shopping, so you can devote energy to other important tasks.

  • Pace yourself. Take plenty of rest breaks.

  • Set an alarm if you nap during the day, so you don't snooze too long. That could interfere with your nighttime sleep.

  • Engage in nonstrenuous physical activity, such as walking or yoga.

For hair loss:

  • Ask your health care provider to recommend a mail-order site with hats, scarves, and head wraps for cancer patients or a high-quality wig shop in your area. Match your hair color to a wig before hair loss starts. 

  • Avoid a sunburned scalp by wearing sunscreen or a head covering. Wear a warm hat in cold weather to retain body heat.

Alternative remedies

Various alternative treatments also may help relieve the symptoms of cancer therapy. The most useful options include nutrition, massage therapy, visualization, and stress-reduction techniques.

Talk with your health care provider about using these therapies in addition to your medical treatment. You should make sure those offering alternative treatments are licensed, certified, and experienced. Look for alternative health care providers who have experience working on a team with more conventional practitioners--and avoid any alternative therapists who say they can cure your cancer.

Featuring the New 64-Slice CT Scanner

Broward Health Imperial Point offers a complete line of radiological services, such as our new 64-Slice CT Scanner. We provide the most advanced techniques in diagnostic and therapeutic radiology.

Broward Health Imperial Point’s experienced board certified radiologists, certified technologists, critical care nurses and skilled administrative staff are dedicated to personalized service and high-quality imaging and interpretation. We work closely with your physician to assure timely and convenient scheduling, imaging, treatment and follow-up.

Broward Health Imperial Point's nuclear medicine, MRI, CT, mammography and ultrasound departments are fully accredited by the American College of Radiology. This prestigious achievement is an example of our commitment to providing the highest quality standard in the community. 

Diagnostic Radiography
Plain film radiography - commonly known as x-ray - is safe, noninvasive, and quickly performed. The average exam takes no more than 10-15 minutes. For most plain film exams, no special preparation is required.

Angiography / Interventional Radiology
An angiogram is performed to get a much closer look at arteries or veins than is possible from other means. A long thin tube, or catheter, is guided through the artery to the area to be studied by using a contrast dye and x-rays. Broward Health Imperial Point offers a comprehensive array of interventional procedures including arteriograms, stents, stent grafts, vertebroplasty, uterine fibroid embolization, central lines, drainages, biopsies and angioplasty.

Computerized Tomography
CT scan is a non-invasive technique in which rotating x-ray beams produce thin cross-sectional images of the body. At Broward Health Imperial Point, a licensed radiologic technologist performs the procedure within minutes. 64-Slice CT Scanner provides precise, three dimensional imaging of most structures. We offer heart, calcium scoring, virtual colonoscopy, and other CT screening services.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Magnetic Resonance Angiography
MRI and MRA have greatly improved the sensitivity and accuracy of diagnostic imaging through the use of strong magnetic fields, radiofrequency transducers and computer-assisted imaging. The advantage of MRI is that the patient is not exposed to x-rays.

Comprehensive Breast Imaging and Breast Services
Broward Health Imperial Point offers the highest quality, low-dose mammograms available, provided by ACR certified mammography technologists in our FDA IMQSA-Certified facility. A mammogram can detect breast cancer years before it can be found by a physical examination.

Comprehensive Breast Services include routine screening and diagnostic mammograms, breast ultrasound, which also includes mammography and ultrasound guided breast biopsies. State-of-the-art equipment includes our new digital mammography system and breast MRI.

Nuclear Medicine
Broward Health Imperial Point’s high-tech Gamma Camera performs all aspects of diagnostic and therapeutic nuclear medicine procedures. Diagnostic procedures include scintigraphic imaging of the brain, bones, thyroid, heart, lungs and kidneys.

Procedures can be scheduled by calling Central Scheduling 954-759-7500. Procedures are performed Monday - Thursday, 8:30am - 5:00pm, and Friday 9:00am - 5:00pm.

ACR Accredited since 1998 Ultrasound is a quick and painless exam that can be performed without radiation. Diagnostic studies include abdominal, gynecologic, vascular, prostate, thyroid, testicular and musculoskeletal, to name a few. Ultrasound also is used to guide interventional procedures such as biopsies, paracentesis, thoracentesis, needle localizations and breast procedures.

Interventional Neuroradiology
Interventional Neuroradiology is an exciting, minimally invasive approach in the treatment of vascular diseases of the central nervous system. Conditions that, in the past, would have required surgery such as aneurysms, vascular malformations, and tumors of the brain, head and neck can be considered for treatment by using an endovascular approach. Interventional techniques such as thrombolysis are also useful in the management of patients with acute ischemic stroke.

Extended Outpatient Operating Hours:
The Department of Radiology has extended operating hours in its MRI and CT Divisions.

Our MRI unit is state-of-the-art with Short Bore design (which is fast and less claustrophobic) and is open from 7:15am - 6pm, Monday through Friday; and Saturday 8am - 3pm.  We will also make every effort to accommodate walk-in patients, if needed.

The state-of-the-art 64-Slice CT Scanner is open Monday - Friday, from 8am - 6pm, and Saturday from 7am - 3pm.

For further inquiries call 954-776-8856 (CT Scan) or 954-776-8845 (MRI).

Ultrasound is open Monday - Friday from 7:15am - 4:15pm and Saturday from 8:30am - 3:45pm.  

Bone Density is open Monday - Friday from 8am - 6pm and Saturday from 8am - 12noon.

Mammography is available Monday - Friday from 8am - 4pm and every other Saturday from 8am - 11:45am. 

X-Rays (Diagnostic Radiology) are available Monday - Friday from 8am - 6pm and Saturday from 8am - 12noon.

To schedule your outpatient test or procedure call Central Scheduling at 954-759-7500.

Need a Doctor? Call the Broward Health Line at 954-759-7400.