What are the possible complications of chemotherapy

What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

Author: Maria Yiallouros, Dr. med. habil. Gesche Tallen, created on: November 9th, 2009, approval: Prof. Dr. med. Ursula Creutzig, last changed: 05.06.2020

Chemotherapy not only damages cancer cells, but also healthy cells that divide frequently and quickly, such as cells of the oral and intestinal mucosa, hair root cells and bone marrow cells. This leads to a number of side effects in the course of treatment, which vary in severity depending on the type and dosage of the medication.

Some of the undesirable side effects of chemotherapy are listed below. It is important to know in advance, however, that not all patients react to treatment in the same way. This means that not every patient will experience all of the side effects listed here. Each patient also experiences individual side effects to different degrees.

The most common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Disorders in the digestive tract, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • Damage to the bone marrow with impaired production of healthy red and white blood cells and platelets. The lack of blood cells can in turn lead to an acute, possibly life-threatening risk of infection as well as to increased bleeding tendencies and anemia.
  • Damage and dysfunction of the kidneys, hearing, brain and nervous system, liver and lungs
  • Impaired fertility / fertility due to dysfunction of the male and female gonads - the ovaries and testicles.

The extent of the damage and the length of time it takes to recover depend on the type and dose of cytotoxic drugs administered and on the age and general physical condition of the patient.

We recommend: Let the treatment team explain to you, for example in a personal conversation, about: Each new substance, the reason and form of its administration, possible interactions with other drugs, possible general and special side effects and complications, prevention and treatment options for side effects and complications, and preferably before the new drug is administered for the first time. In this way you can prepare your child and yourself for the new situation.

The treatment team will definitely take various supportive treatment measures (supportive therapy) to prevent or treat the side effects of chemotherapy. Here you will find detailed information on supportive therapy.

The patient himself or his relatives can also use various (preventive) measures to help mitigate side effects and avoid complications as much as possible. This applies above all to treatment times that the patient spends at home (for example breaks in therapy or outpatient treatment phases). Here are recommendations for at home, such as diet, infection prevention, bleeding management, and treatment-related side effects. You will receive individual recommendations from your treatment team.

(Photo: Wiebke Peitz -Charité Berlin)

Possible long-term consequences


In addition to acute side effects, chemotherapy can also lead to long-term consequences. Information on possible long-term consequences, affected organs, possibilities of prevention and treatment as well as general long-term follow-up can be found here

Hair loss and hair replacement

Cancer therapy can temporarily lead to hair loss. Hair loss can be concealed and well-being increased with wigs, scarves or other headgear. The following pages offer helpful information on the subject of hair loss and hair replacement as well as numerous link tips.

Information sheets

on fertility and fertility maintenance

Girls / adolescent patients or boys / adolescent patients can find out about the options for maintaining fertility here before cancer treatment.

Information brochures

to fertility

The brochures "Luzie would like to be a mother" and "Mischa would like to be a father" are aimed at young patients with cancer. They provide information on the topic of fertility after cancer therapy and on ways to maintain fertility through preventive and therapeutic measures. With the kind permission of the Berliner Krebsgesellschaft e.V. (publisher) and the author (Prof. Dr. med.Anja-Borgmann-Staudt) you can download the brochure here as a PDF.