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What Are Possible Complications from Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a medical treatment typically given to patients suffering from some form of cancer. This therapy can be used by itself or in combination with surgery and other medical procedures. There are several potential complications from chemotherapy that can cause short- and long-term side effects. While some of these complications are fairly minor, chemotherapy poses significant risks to a person's health and can significantly lower his quality of life while undergoing the treatment. Despite these risks, chemotherapy remains one of the most effective cancer treatments available as of 2011, and many of the side effects cease at the end of treatment.

While the specific details of the treatment vary depending on the type and severity of the cancer, chemotherapy is generally administered via an intravenous (IV) drip or taken orally in a pill form. When given by IV, there is a potential for several complications, such as infiltration, hematoma, embolism and phlebitis resulting from poor needle placement or too much air in the IV line. Repeated, long-term IV treatments can damage veins to the point where they cannot be used for further procedures.

The drugs used in chemotherapy treatment also can cause many side effects because of their toxic nature. Some of the more apparent short-term complications from chemotherapy include hair loss, nausea, diarrhea and pain. These complications can further weaken a person who already is suffering from the effects of the cancer. Some of these side effects can be treated with over-the-counter drugs or prescriptions. Patients may deal with hair loss by purchasing a wig, wearing hats or shaving their head completely.

Less visible complications from chemotherapy can include various abnormalities within the patient's blood, including low counts of white and red blood cells and platelets. A low red blood cell count, also known as anemia, can cause bleeding and loss of energy. A low white blood cell count, called neutropenia, can weaken the patient's immune system and leave him vulnerable to infection. Chemotherapy patients should have regular blood tests to determine if they are suffering from either of these conditions.

Chemotherapy also may have some more serious complications that can damage vital organs within the patient's body. The heart, lungs, kidneys and liver may all be damaged by certain types of drugs used to fight cancerous tumors. It is important for a doctor to perform a thorough health screening on a patient before he begins treatment, to make sure his body can withstand the cancer-fighting drugs. In some cases, the risk of complications from chemotherapy is too high and doctors may pursue alternative treatments.

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