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Chemotherapy Side Effects, Including Shortness of Breath

author image Dominique Brooks
Dominique Brooks has been a medical editor for over 10 years. She has worked in medical education for physicians, nurses and pharmacists as well as consumers. She started writing business articles for Work.com in 2008 and health articles online in 2009. She holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Alabama and a Doctor of Medicine from Vanderbilt University.
Chemotherapy Side Effects, Including Shortness of Breath
A woman is receiving chemotherapy. Photo Credit Toa55/iStock/Getty Images


Chemotherapy medications are drugs that can kill fast-growing cells like cancer cells. There are other healthy fast-growing cells in the body that may be affected by chemotherapy; this is the cause of most of the side effects of chemotherapy treatment. The normal cells that are typically affected by chemotherapy include those in the bone marrow, in the gastrointestinal tract, in the mouth and those in the reproductive system. Chemotherapy drugs can also affect the lungs, heart and kidneys, among other organs.


Anemia--a low red blood cell count--is one common side effect of chemotherapy. Too few red blood cells mean that not enough oxygen gets distributed throughout the body. As noted by BreastCancer.org, patients with anemia may experience weakness, dizziness or tiredness. Some medications, such as Epogen, Aranesp and Procrit, may increase the production of blood cells by the bone marrow; sometimes taking iron supplements or eating iron-rich foods may help as well.

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The side effect fatigue means that the patient does not have any energy, and extra rest does not make the feeling of tiredness go away. This can also present as a lack of interest in doing normal activities, according to BreastCancer.org. There is no one medication that may improve fatigue, but lifestyle changes or exercise may improve the symptoms.

Hair Changes

In patients receiving chemotherapy, hair may fall out, thin or change texture or color, as noted by BreastCancer.org. It may take months for the hair to grow back after chemotherapy, but there are steps that the patient can take to prepare and deal with hair changes and loss. Cutting the hair short beforehand, wearing sunscreen on the scalp, or getting a quality and sturdy wig can all help the patient that loses hair during chemotherapy.

Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting is another common side effect of chemotherapy, according to the National Cancer Institute. Other medications that the patient may be taking during chemotherapy, such as pain or bone-strengthening medications, can cause nausea and vomiting as well. Medications called anti-emetics can lessen both nausea and vomiting, notes the American Cancer Society. Changing the diet can also lessen nausea and vomiting.

Reproductive Side effects

Chemotherapy may involve the reproductive organs--this depends on the type of chemotherapy, as well as the patient's age and overall health. In men, chemotherapy can lower the sperm cell counts and how the sperm cells operate; men should discuss these changes with a doctor before starting the chemotherapy, according to the American Cancer Society. In women, chemotherapy may affect the ovaries, which could impact hormone levels, egg production or menstrual periods. The function of the vagina may also change. Normal functioning may return after the chemotherapy is stopped, or it may not return at all.

Shortness of Breath

Chemotherapy can worsen breathing problems like bronchitis, pneumonia or pre-existing shortness of breath in some patients, according to the ChemoCare website. Chemotherapy drugs can also cause an accumulation of fluid in the body, which can also cause shortness of breath, according to the National Cancer Institute. Shortness of breath can also be caused by a blood clot in the lung, called a pulmonary embolism. If a patient experiences shortness of breath while on chemotherapy, he should contact a doctor or nurse immediately for further evaluation.

Kidney and Bladder Problems

Another potential side effect of chemotherapy is changes in the urinary tract and kidneys. The patient's urine may change colors or change in smell, according to the American Cancer Society. Some chemotherapy drugs may cause short- or long-term kidney damage; patients should let a doctor know if there is frequent urination, pain during urination, blood in the urine, or fever or chills. Drinking plenty of fluids may lessen the damage done to the kidneys by chemotherapy.

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