Side Effects of Chemotherapy for Mesothelioma

Quick Summary

Chemotherapy can have many benefits for mesothelioma patients. It can prolong life expectancy, alleviate pain and other symptoms, and make other treatments such as surgery more effective and comfortable. However, the treatment can also cause various side effects in patients, ranging from mild to severe.

Due to the cytotoxic nature (ability to kill living cells) of the chemotherapy drugs for mesothelioma, it is possible that healthy cells may be harmed in addition to cancerous cells. The chemotherapeutic agents used in the treatment primarily target cells that are dividing and multiplying quickly. While the majority of cells grown adults have stopped dividing, cancer cells continue this process, so chemotherapy generally kills cancerous cells but not normal cells.

When cancer cells split into two, each cell is identical. When this happens enough, a buildup of cancer cells becomes a tumor.

In mesothelioma tumors, three types of cells can be identified:

  • Epithelial
  • Sarcomatoid
  • Biphasic

These are the types of tumors targeted in mesothelioma chemotherapy.

Common Chemotherapy Side Effects

There are non-cancerous cells in the human body that continue to divide and multiply quickly, even in adulthood. These include hair, bone marrow, skin, and the lining of digestive organs. When the healthy tissue in these parts of the body is damaged by the chemotherapeutic agents, side effects result. This damage accounts for a large number of the side effects experienced by mesothelioma patients who receive chemotherapy.

Below are the most common side effects that mesothelioma patients experience when undergoing chemotherapy. Side effects may be worse depending on how many rounds of chemo the patient undergoes.


Fatigue is one of the most common effects of chemotherapy treatment. Post-treatment exhaustion is normal, and patients should take advantage of the rest periods given between treatments. Even normal activities that don’t use much energy may seem particularly taxing.

To manage fatigue-related symptoms of chemotherapy, ensure you receive plenty of rest and sleep. Light exercise and activity may help, but you should avoid strenuous workouts. Don’t be afraid to rely on others to help you complete tasks and errands you would normally be able to do with ease.

It’s important to recognize that while fatigue and tiredness is a completely normal side effect of chemotherapy, severe dizziness and shortness of breath are not. If you feel as though you might pass out or have trouble breathing, consult a medical professional immediately. Likewise, if you notice an inability to sleep (insomnia), this could be a sign that your doctor should change your treatment plan.

Chemo Brain

Chemo brain is a term that describes the memory loss, absentmindedness, and inability to focus on usually simple tasks that sometimes manifest in chemotherapy recipients. Symptoms of chemo brain may appear as a general feeling of “fogginess”, a shortened attention span, slowed thought processes and difficulty multitasking.

If you experience chemo brain, you might need to adjust your daily life in small ways to make things easier. Avoid overloading yourself with tasks and errands and stay organized. It may help to write things down in a notebook, so you don’t have to rely on memory as much. While you don’t want to overwhelm your brain, light reading and puzzles could be useful. Don’t forget to get a full night’s sleep, incorporate mild exercise and eat a healthy diet.

Nausea and Vomiting

Vomiting or simply the feeling of nausea are both common side effects in mesothelioma patients who receive chemotherapy. In fact, these symptoms appear in the vast majority of chemotherapy patients. These side effects can result in additional health problems that stem from the accompanying loss of appetite. It is important that chemotherapy patients ensure they are getting proper nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight during and after the treatment.

Nausea and Vomiting Update

You can mitigate nausea and vomiting with prescription medications in combination with natural treatments such as ginger or peppermint. Eating small meals may help you combat nausea while helping you to avoid unhealthy weight loss from a lack of appetite.

Hair Loss

Chemotherapy’s most visible side effect, hair loss occurs when the rapidly dividing hair follicles are targeted by the anti-cancer drugs. Because hair is always growing, the cytotoxic agents have a significant impact on these cells. Depending on the drugs used, patients may experience hair loss just on the head, while others may lose all body hair. They may see damage to skin and nails as well.

Hair loss in chemotherapy patients is temporary, and regrowth will begin shortly after the end of treatment. Some patients may choose to shave their head in advance of the treatment; some may also choose to wear a wig, which can look natural and very beautiful. If you choose not to cover your head, make sure you take care of your scalp. Apply adequate sun protection when outside, as the scalp can be sunburnt quite easily. Steer clear of harsh chemicals such as hair dye on thinned-out hair and avoid the use of hot tools such as curling irons, hairdryers or flatirons.

Low Blood Cell and Platelet Counts

Chemotherapy patients often experience lower than normal counts of red and white blood cells. Low platelet counts can also occur. Since platelets contribute to the body’s clotting ability, this may result in a patient bruising more easily, having nosebleeds, or experiencing light bleeding while performing tasks such as brushing their teeth and flossing.

If platelet counts drop dramatically, red spotting might appear on a patient’s skin. If this occurs, you should contact a medical professional as a platelet transfusion could be required.

Mouth Sores

When chemotherapy drugs kill or damage cells in the mouth, patients may experience pain or soreness in the gums. Sores may also pop up around the mouth, particularly if the patient had inadequate dental care before receiving chemotherapy. If it is possible to book a dentist appointment before chemotherapy begins, this may help you manage symptoms or reduce the potential severity in advance.

Digestive Abnormalities

Chemotherapeutic agents can sometimes damage cells in the lining of a patient’s digestive system. Sometimes this can result in abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea. Most of these side effects can be cared for with over-the-counter medications. Dietary changes and hydration may also reduce gastrointestinal symptoms.

Non-Physical Side Effects and Mental Wellbeing

Undergoing chemotherapy can sometimes result in non-physical side effects such as depression. The changes to the body that arise as a result of the treatment can lead to lowered self-esteem, particularly when it comes to hair loss, weight changes and a tired appearance.

It may be difficult for patients to battle exhaustion when attempting simple tasks that are normally easy to complete, struggle with cognition, or cope with needing to rely on others. It might also be tough to adjust to social settings when your energy levels, appetite, and appearance have changed.

It’s important to count on the support of friends, family, and your doctor. Communication with non-professionals can help you cope with these emotional side effects, as can counseling. Cancer centers can offer patient and family counseling. It can also be helpful to talk with others who have gone through the treatment.

Individual Experiences With Chemotherapy

Some of these side effects are more common than others. You may experience all or few of these symptoms. Or you might experience other side effects entirely. Every patient has their own experience with chemotherapy.

While rest and recovery are important for all patients, you should ensure to keep your doctor informed of your experience with side effects both during your treatment and afterward, during your follow-up appointments. That way your doctor can get more insight into the success of the treatment, determine if any adjustments need to be made, and offer tips on coping with symptoms. In addition, it is key to communicate with your doctor so that they are aware of any unusual or unexpected side effects emerge.

Connect with a mesothelioma specialist in your area today. Call Mesothelioma Help Now at (800) 584-4151 to speak to a Patient Advocate.