The Legacy of Chemo That Can Last For Years — Pain


As each person’s individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his/her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.

Because anticancer drugs are made to kill growing cells, they also affect normal, fast-growing cells such as blood cells forming in the bone marrow and cells in the digestive tract (i.e., mouth, stomach, intestines, esophagus), reproductive system (i.e., sexual organs), and hair follicles. Some anticancer drugs may affect cells of vital organs, such as the heart, kidney, bladder, lungs, and nervous system.

Chemotherapy causes no serious long-term problems for most people. In some cases, however, chemotherapy can cause permanent changes or damage to the heart, lungs, nerves, kidneys, and reproductive or other organs. Further, certain types of chemotherapy may have delayed effects, such as a second cancer, that develop many years later. Discuss any long-term effects that may result from your treatment with your physician.


Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell’s ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy drugs may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer it is being used to treat.

While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, there may be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare, and, in some cases prevent these symptoms from occurring.

Chemotherapy works by destroying or slowing the growth of cancer cells, or making them sensitive to radiation. Chemotherapy mainly affects fast-growing cells, like cancer cells. Other fast-growing cells can be affected such as the cells that cause hair to grow.

There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs. You may have one chemotherapy drug or two or more drugs – often referred to as combination chemotherapy. This will depend on the type of cancer you have. Your medical oncologist will talk to you about which chemotherapy treatment is best for you.

Chemotherapy is mostly given intravenously (into a vein). The main advantage of chemotherapy is that putting the drugs into your bloodstream allows for treatment of the entire body. In this way, any cancer cells that may have broken away from the original cancer can be treated. However, the drugs will also affect healthy cells, especially fast-growing cells and as a result, you may experience side effects. You will have regular appointments with your doctor throughout your treatment to discuss how your treatment is going. You may be monitored throughout your treatment through scans, x-rays and blood tests to check your progress and health.

The anti-depressant duloxetine, sold under the brand name Cymbalta, is the first drug that has been shown to be effective in treating the nerve pain caused by certain chemotherapy drugs.

“This is great, because to date there have been no studies that have demonstrated that anything really works,” said Ellen Lavoie Smith, PhD, a researcher who led the study at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.

The following are the most common symptoms of nerve and muscle involvement due to chemotherapy. However, each individual experiences symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • weak, sore, tired, or achy muscles
  • walking problems and/or pain when walking
  • loss of balance
  • clumsiness and/or difficulty picking up objects
  • shaking or trembling
  • hearing loss
  • jaw pain
  • stomach pain
  • constipation

Most of the time, these symptoms will resolve with time. However, this may take up to one year following treatment. The symptoms of nerve and muscle involvement due to chemotherapy may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

Many patients, both men and women, find that chemotherapy affects their sex organs as well as their ability to have sex. Your age and general health will influence how the drugs will affect your sexual function. The NCI provides the following advice for coping with sexual problems associated with cancer and chemotherapy: