Chemotherapy for cancer, including Hodgkin's and Non-hodgkin's lymphoma, typically operates by targeting cells that divide rapidly. This affects cancer cells, but also affects certain cells within the body, including hair follicles, bone marrow, and the digestive tract. As a result, many of the side effects of chemotherapy revolve around these tissue groups. Everyone will respond differently to chemotherapy, but since it is designed to be cytotoxic (that is, designed to kill cells), chemotherapy will always cause harm to healthy tissues as it tackles cancerous cells. Some of the many side effects of chemotherapy include:
- Suppression of the immune system - The most serious of chemotherapeutic effects, immunosuppression leaves the patient vulnerable to infect from sources that would not ordinarily threaten a healthy individual. Taking steps like washing hands may help alleviate this risk somewhat, but it is estimated that nearly 85 percent of infections arise from microorganisms that occur naturally on the skin or in the gastrointestinal tract. Infections may be localized, as with herpes simplex or shingles, or may be systemic (for example, sepsis). In extreme cases, treatment may need to be suspended if immune response drops to critical levels.
- Hair loss - Most treatment regimens will cause thinning or outright hair loss. This is usual temporary and hair will often begin to grow again a few weeks after treatment ceases. One of the most outwardly recognizable side effects of chemotherapy, hair loss can carry with it a heavy social stigma, leading to anxiety and depression. Psychiatric support may be necessary to overcome the emotional effects of this and other side effects of chemotherapy.
- Fatigue - When considered on top of cancer-related fatigue, the process of undergoing chemotherapy can be physically and mentally exhausting for patients. In part this can be attributed to anemia, and to so degree mitigated by iron supplements, blood transfusions, and hormone therapy designed to boost blood cell production.
- Tendency to bleed more easily - Fast-growing platelets in the blood are vulnerable to chemotherapy just as hair is, and may be seriously reduced. This leads to increased bleeding and bruising. Like immune suppression, extremely low platelet counts may require that therapy be suspended to allow the body to recover.
- Gastrointestinal distress - Because of the susceptibility of the stomach and intestinal ling to drugs that target fast-dividing cells, nausea and vomiting are common side effects of chemotherapy. Along with constipation and diarrhea, this can lead to a patient not eating enough, which in turn leads to unwanted weight loss. Anti-emetic drugs are typically successful in controlling the worst symptoms, as are self-help methods like ginger tea or eating smaller, more frequent meals. Like hair loss, this is a temporary affliction, and should resolve within a week or so of ending treatment.
In addition to these not insignificant effects, chemotherapy can also result in damage to the organs, including the heart, liver, kidneys, brain, and inner ear. Such damage may or may not be reversible, and will carry its own set of symptoms. An oncologist or chemotherapy support group will help a patient cope with the side effects of chemotherapy and may be able to provide advice on lessening the impact of those effects on a patient's life.