Chemotherapy is a common treatment for many blood cancers.
Chemo medications can either kill the cancer cells, or stop them from replicating. They also kill normal cells, but these cells can repair and recover.
Unlike supportive care, which treats symptoms, chemo treats the actual disease. Because of this it’s often called disease modifying treatment.
Chemo can be given as tablets, injections, or infusions via a drip (IV). The type of chemo given depends on the type of cancer. It’s common to be on more than one chemo drug at a time.
Some people have chemo alongside other therapies like targeted therapy or immunotherapy, this is referred to as a regimen or protocol. Intravenous chemo is given in cycles of treatment days. This means that you will have treatment for a certain number of days, followed by a set number of rest days. Chemo cycle times depend on the drug. The number of treatment days and the number of cycles can be different due to the drug or the disease being treated.
Managing chemotherapy side effects
The type of side effects you experience from your chemo will depend on your type of blood cancer, the type of chemo you’re given, and your overall health and wellbeing.
Here are some general tips about how you can manage some chemo side effects.
Low red blood cells (anaemia)
Try: you may be given a blood transfusion or recommended supplements.
Try: avoid sharp objects in your mouth like chop bones or potato chips; be careful not to cut or injure yourself; use a soft toothbrush; use an electric razor; wear gloves and closed shoes in the garden.
Low white blood cells (neutrophils) – risk of infection
Try: talk to your treatment team about vaccinations; avoid crowds; keep away from people who are sick and might be contagious (colds, flu, chicken pox); eat food that has been properly prepared and freshly cooked; don’t clean up pet faeces; wear gloves in the garden; don’t swim in public pools, lakes or rivers.
Feeling sick – nausea and vomiting
Try: eat smaller meals more often during the day; try cool or cold food like jelly; let someone else cook for you; drink ginger ale or soda water; avoid strong smells; you’ll be given medicine to help.
Change to taste
Try: add a little more sugar to sweet foods; add a bit more salt to savoury foods; if you have a metallic taste, try rinsing your mouth out.
Mouth problems – mucositis
Try: use a soft toothbrush and mild toothpaste; brush every time you eat; use salty water, sodium bicarbonate in water or alcohol-free mouthwash; continue to floss but stop if your gums bleed.
Try: drink plenty of fluids; get some diet advice from your treatment team; if you’re constipated, don’t strain; if you have haemorrhoids don’t push on them, tell your treatment team, you’ll be given medicine to help.
Try: rest or nap when needed; take regular gentle exercise.
Try: keep a notebook handy to write things down; ask your pharmacist to Webster pack your medications; take regular gentle exercise; socialise – tell your loved ones what’s going on.
Hair loss and thinning
Try: prepare your family and friends; use a soft hairbrush and a mild baby shampoo; pat your hair dry gently with a towel; cut your hair shorter or have it shaved when you start chemo; use an electric shaver; avoid using heat or chemicals – don’t dye or blow dry your hair; use sunscreen on your scalp.
Try: cover up with long sleeves and long pants; wear sunglasses and a hat or a beanie to protect your scalp; talk to your nurse about which sunscreens are best to use; avoid sun exposure at high UV times of the day.
Last updated on November 12, 2020
Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.