Can chemo cause side effects for those exposed to the patient receiving it?

32 answers | Last updated: Apr 14, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My son is always worring about germs, second hand smoke, etc, and now is worried that the chemo his Grandma is taking could have side affects for him.  Is that even a remote possibility?


Expert Answers

Senior Editor Melanie Haiken, who is responsible for Caring.com's coverage of cancer, general health, and family finance, discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions.

No, there is nothing for your son to worry about. Chemotherapy drugs are systemic drugs that stay within the cancer patient's body and cannot affect others. Those who live with cancer patients or care for them cannot be exposed to the chemotherapy drugs in any way.

Likewise, cancer itself is not contagious. It doesn't work like a germ-based disease; it's the cancer patient's own cells that have become affected by the cancer. Unlike second hand smoke, there's no risk to anyone around the patient in sharing any part of the house.


Community Answers

Cph answered...

Sorry to hear about your sick grandmother. I'm not a doctor but I've spent some time studying this while caring for my boyfriend who received a chemo regimen. If in doubt, ask the nurses where she's getting therapy.

Probably not a concern under normal circumstances. Remember you are constantly exposed to people receiving chemo when on the bus, train etc. You just don't know it. But it is a good thing to be aware of, since these drugs are toxic. The risks of the drugs are worth it to the patients receiving the drugs, but for those around it is important to minimize exposure.

Studies have found the drugs and their metabolites are found in body fluids of people receiving the drugs, mostly in urine. It is important to avoid contact with urine for the days after the patient received chemo. As a precaution, patients are advised to sit down on the toilet while urinating, and flushing the toilet twice with the lid closed. The toilet should be cleaned with gloves. Gloves must be used when empying a bedpan etc. with urine and care be taken to avoid splashing. Linnens, bedsheets etc. soiled with urine, vomit etc. should be washed as soon as possible (or stored in sealed bags) - glvoes shuold be used when handling these sheets, and they should be washed separately from other stuff, preferably twice.

The above is the usual advice Ive seen to spouses etc. to people receiving chemo. For people caring for patients at oncology wards (who may be seeing a lot of patients receiving chemo every day during their entire work life) some extra precautions are advised:

Certain drugs (incl. cyclophosphamide and thiotepa) can also be found in smaller amounts in sweat, and can be found in clothes, linnes, bedsheets etc. from patients receiving the drugs. It is advisable to change linnes, bedsheets etc. 2-3 days after infusion of drug, preferably using gloves. The same is true for clothes worn during those days.

Remember that the drugs quickly flush out of the system (in most casea a few days), so it is only the days shortly after infusion that special precautions must be taken. Otherwise just use common sense and normal good hygiene :) And don't let this disturb your caring for your grandmother, she needs all the support she can get. Good luck :)


Anonymous84 answered...

I disagree with the first answer by Melanie Haiken; although it is true that chemotherapy is a systemic drug, it is excreted in body fluids and the hospital provides a list of precautions for caregivers. Thanks to CPH for a much more definitive answer.


Justanobserver answered...

The reply provided above was helpful and very knowledgeable. While it's obvious the poster was quick to point out the "underedcuatednesss" of Ms. Haiken, let's point out the fact that she is putting herself and husband at RISK with the care of her father while he's on Xeloda.

The obvious signs have already been listed and they are experiencing these symptoms now. But, they are adults and have chosen that the risks and, perhaps, problems down the road are worth taking. Let's also point out that their 2 year old son is being exposed to this, as well. Regardless the situation, should the child be exposed to such endangerment on behalf of his parents ineptness? There is no rationlization.


A fellow caregiver answered...

I appreciate the response from "anonymous." My mother has been doing the laundry for my father who has been taking chemotherapy for almost one year for colorectal cancer. In the last 3 months her hair has started to fall out and she has a constant itch but no rash. She had a blood draw and everything was normal. I wish we could find someone else who has experienced this. My father's last chemo treatment will be in about 6 weeks (after 36 total) but in the meantime, my mother is miserable. If anyone has any advice, we would sure appreciate it.


A fellow caregiver answered...

For Anonymous caregiver (mother/father). I too have been doing laundry, driving my mom, living with her, sharing same kitchen dishes, utensils, etc., bathroom everything for two years now. With every new round of chemotherapy I also lose hair, have itchy skin, etc. Her oncologist suggested it was "sympathy chemo," but I feel these are real side effects from all of this indirect exposure. I wish I could help with a solution, but again, it's been two years and counting now and my hair starts to come back in during chemo breaks only to fall back out/major thinning and the itchy skin, fluid retention, spots, achy joints, occasional nausea, fatigue, etc., every new round...At least we know we are not the only ones going through this. For what that's worth. :(


Concerned mother! answered...

Like many of you I have been losing my hair since my son has been taking the chemotherapy drug called CCNU. Since he has been on it, every time I brush my hair or just run my fingers through it, I always get fingers full of hair. I found this site just from wondering and asking the above question. Thank you all for sharing your experience and information. I thought it was just me!


Helpingmyfriend answered...

I found the post explaining that exposure to chemo is harmful to be very helpful!! It's amazing how awful the chemo really is, especially to people like my friend who is a nurse, who has at this point experienced every possible damage it can do, with the exception of cancer which she has been told is the last step before death basically!! I feel so helpless in trying to find a way to help her. I am searching for a doctor who might could help. She has experienced the infertility, ovary growing to her colon, hair coming out, 2 growths in her throat, and many other awful things...Due to quack doctors in a small town, she doesn't know who to turn to for help or answers and with the help of OSHA and a couple of others, has bascially diagnosed herself. Here's the kicker; she only worked around the chemo drug for 4 weeks administering it to patients, now she is paying with her life..if anyone knows of a clinic or something that might could be of help, please contact me back!! I want to help her!!


Spursfootiechick answered...

Thanks for your comments everyone!!! I have a comment AND a question.....

To those of you CARING for oncology patients at home & who are experiencing chemo side effects yourselves....I see that at least one of you has had bloodwork done but that it was "all fine." My 'educated guess' to explain that is that I'd imagine that your doc ordered the very BASIC blood tests like a CBC (Complete Blood Count-gives numbers of red & white blood cells-in whole #s & then broken down into the specific TYPES of red & white cells as well), platelets, etc. It can determine if you are anemic, have an infection (& what kind~bacterial or viral), if your blood cells & platelets are shaped & functioning properly, etc., & BMP (Basic Metabolic Profile, '6,' or chemistries, which includes the most basic ones like sodium, potassium, chloride, carbon dioxide, blood sugar/glucose & BUN-Blood Urea Nitrogen, Creatinine-both check kidney function....a CMP, a '9' or a '12' just add a few MORE chemistries like some liver tests, alkaline phos, calcium, etc.). IF you've had blood tests AND they all came back 'normal,' I'd suggest you go back to your doc & explain in detail your symptoms, suggest they order more complete & symptom specific blood tests & if necessary, be stern & adamant about it till you get the answer you want (ie: "Here's the order for your blood tests!"). I KNOOOOOOOW JUST HOW DIFFICULT IT IS TO LOOK AFTER SOMEONE GOING THRU THIS, someone who is very ill, someone who requires anywhere from minimal to absolutely CONSTANT & COMPLETE & TOTAL CARE & you all areABSOLUTE ANGELS...there's a special place in heaven waiting for you!!!!!! MOVING ON TO MY QUESTION: I worked as an oncology nurse for several years in a small private practice where the only nurses were myself & one of my best friends. We both left when sadly, the practice closed & the physician (the VERY BEST I'VE EVER KNOWN!!!) went to teach medical school nearly 10 years ago. The other nurse & I have BOTH been suffering terribly for at least the past five years of VERY SIMILAR autoimmune diseases (she has even had to have a TRACHEOTOMY PLACED!!!) & I'm wondering if anyone out there knows of ANY PROOF of the relationship between mixing & giving the chemo & then developing disabling diseases down the road? I'd also like to know if there is any government recourse or resources available to help us? I can hardly work now but, although it makes me SICKER, still drag myself in once or twice a week for 12 hour shifts because my family desperately needs the money from my income (@ least SOME OF IT), same with my friend. I was DENIED Social Security Disability, even after all SEVEN OF MY DOCTORS BEGGED ME TO APPLY. If anyone out there knows WHERE I can find some help, PLEEEEEEASE POST!!!! Thanks so much,

Becca


Vga1963 answered...

First, thank you for these post. They have been incredibly helpful in helping me find answers pertaining to symptoms I'm experiencing lately.

Recently, my husband was diagnosed with Lymphoma and has been going through a regimen of chemo therapy treatment every three weeks. While he is only on his third treatment, I have begun to experience bazaar symptoms such as numbness in my feet and legs, tingling in my toes, my legs feel like lead when I awake in the morning, my feet are going to sleep when they are stationary, etc. Unfortunately, I have not been taking the precautions noted in the previous post. Thus effective immediately, I will begin a much stricter regimen to guard against the chemo transfer. Thank you again for your insight.


Docmanic answered...

For those scratching their heads about their symptoms:

Live blood analysis (LBA) can identify sources of many problems very quickly and cheaply (compared to accepted testing procedures,) although medical plans are not likely to pay for it. It is a diagnostic system that is often used along with alternative medicines.

A google search turns up a lot of negative press on LBA, but I have seen it work on my wife to identify an exact problem she faced, which was then addressed with alternative, non-toxic measures that were unbelievably effective.

Very common result with LBA is the analyst recommends dietary and lifestyle changes that address the causes of the issues rather than attacking the symptoms (which appears to be standard medical protocol.)

Our society is inherently toxic, and we are exposed to these toxins through the food chain, environment, workplace, home, health plans, etc ad nauseum. Our best defense against illness is making healthy choices.

Our best defensive and diagnostic tool is our own brain, and it needs to be applied through critical thinking, where we question everything we are told, even the accepted dogma of current medical practice. Remember, repetition does not make something true.


Vacherokeemama answered...

My husband suffered from Stage 3 A lung cancer and had a pneumonectomy to remove his left lung. He is undergoing chemo therapy using Cisplatin and Navalbene. Since he began treatment, we sleep in the same bed, I have had chronic pain in my feet and hands, nausea, diarhea, constipation, and headaches. I think we should avoid sleeping in the same bed for a for the remainder of his chemotherapy. Any advice?


Kr.s answered...

My mother had breats cancer and is receiving chemo at the hospidal every 3 weeks. I have a 6 years old daughter who loves to spend time with her daily, prepare food together, have sleepovers in the same bed etc. So I understand she has to stop that for now. but my question is, how many days after the treatment is she "dangerous" (she only takes hormones at home, no chemo at home)?


A fellow caregiver answered...

I have been caring for my husband for the last four months while he has received a very heavy dose of FolFox for 3 months and then just 5Fu because of side effects from the Oxaliplatin. We have been told all the usual things about secondary exposure - flush twice, shut toilet lid before you do, be careful of body secretions for 48 hrs, etc. About 3 months into the chemo, my fingernails began to tear off like paper, I have lost more hair than normal, and I am exhausted - more so than just from the stress of our situation. I believe that even with taking precautions to avoid exposure to the chemo drugs, when you live in the same house with someone who's going through it, you're going to be exposed to it and experience some effects from it. DO NOT believe for a minute that it doesn't exit the body through sweat as well as urine and other secretions. Good luck to all on this journey!


Grostaylor answered...

I have been taking of my husband with stage four lung cancer (non smoker) for two years and was never told about the precautions that are necessary for my safety. My throat for the past year has felt strange and sometimes dries out results in sneezing. I was one of those people who rarely sneezed and now I do at least twice a day. I have been to ENT specialists and they tell me I am fine? He has been getting Gemzar practically every week for two weeks and then one off for over one year and a half.


A fellow caregiver answered...

After reading the precautions on Cancer.org for Caregivers, its obvious that what they are calling "second-hand Chemo" is real! It is secreted thru a persons bodily fluids, even tears. It can burn your skin and cause disease, is harmful to children, pets and can cause fetal death. Read it for yourselves and use the proper precautions please!


Naluh answered...

Yes! Secondhand Chemo is real! I'm a survivor of Breast Cancer and the first instructions I received for chemo were: - any time you use the toilet flush it TWO times to avoid secondhand Chemo - do not allow anyone in your household to be in contact with your body fluids without PPEs - use condoms when having sex (the last thing I wanted in that time) during Chemo It's also possible to contaminate a pet with persistent licking habits (if it licks your hands too much, etc.).


A fellow caregiver answered...

I'm caring for my mother who has gone through 2 cycles of Chemo. After the first round I developed and eye itch that went away but came back during the second round. I now have burning, thick, red upper eye lids that are not helped with eye drops and is not an eye infection. The hospital have no safety instruction at all and only after I developed the strange itch I went online and learned about the precautions you should take as a caregiver. It is quite frustrating to not be able to get any info on this type of condition and the hospital denies that it could have anything to do with the chemo. I'm normally very healthy without allergies and the thick red eyelids can surely not be "sympathy chemo" or imagined. There is also very little info online about second hand chemo and how long it is active outside the body. Surely some studies should be done to better research the possibility of reaction to secondary contact to these strong chemo drugs.


Lhamo55 answered...

I am dismayed Ms. Haiken did not research this topic before answering. Many of us here remember when no one thought second hand smoke was a health hazard but today we know better. Now we are beginning to hear the murmurings of another type of second hand poisoning and I think the editors here should address this quickly so that the many caregivers here can better care for themselves. Below is a tinyurl to Cancer.com's chemo safety guide which many hospitals have begun giving patients and caregivers.

http://preview.tinyurl.com/qzo8u5b


Mrs. byz answered...

My mother had triple negative breast cancer and she was on a heavy regime of chemotherapy before surgery. My hair began to thin and fall out, I often traveled up right after her treatments to help her out. She has had a successful surgery and her cancer is in remission and she doesn't receive treatment anymore and my hair is growing back and much thicker. My hair was coming out in clumps. I wasn't completely bald but it was bad! My hairdresser could not explain it??


Reidy35 answered...

I find it very disconcerting that the "editor" of this page is putting people at risk with her answer. Ask any oncologist about care and family/caregiver contamination, or oncology nurse. I know bc I'm currently going thru chemo myself and the thing they reiterate to me with every infusion, DO NOT LET ANYONE COME INTO CONTACT WITH YOUR BODILY FLUIDS. I can't kiss my babies, let my dogs lick me. Saying chemo is systemic so cannot leave a persons body, just shows the lack of knowledge. I'm in absolute shock at the "expert" advise from an editor. Do you realize the information your giving can make someone very sick? I would love to know your background or your medical training. If you go to any infusion center they have pamphlets on how to care for your loved ones, and the first thing is keeping yourself health by not coming into contact w urine, vomit, sweat, saliva, semen. It just really upsets me how irresponsible your answer is!


Vern68 answered...

From the symptoms I am having and those of our dog, I would say Chemo is having a second hand effect on us. I started with migratory joint pain, first with my knee, to hip to hips, and with my back. Nsaids don't even diminished the pain. Either does heat or cold therapy. SInce I didn't have any of problems for years. (Allergy to Crestor) I have to conclude they is a relationship to the Chemo. One more cycle to go for my wife. I hope we both survive it with the help of some prescription pain pills left over from some dental extractions. Our dog has become listless and afraid of her own shadow. Also increased frequency of urination.


Martin janson answered...

All these comments are immensely helpful. I certainly suffer from 2nd hand chemo. I feel like an old man with aching and weakened knees, and my energy level is very reduced. My wife on 3 months chemo looks fitter than me.


Heavenandlace@aol.co answered...

I'm speechless. My grandson had many different types of chemo. A few times when he came home from hospital I got to see him. I thought nothing of giving him a kiss on his head, even thought he would be sweating very bad. He was gave an over doze of chemo plus extra. Not what the portal was and they sent him home to pass. In which his parents got him into an out of state hosp. Then another. My daughter and I after that, started having all types of worsen health problems and now for last few months my hair is falling out and thinning very severe. Don't know if it could be from the over dose of chemo he received. But my health was bad but now much worse. That mainly went on from last yrs holidays until March this yr. And my hair became lot worse after March and contienues. All the symptoms everyone has shared plus others. Great site . I wish health experts would do more on this. Many blessings.loraina


Nantzy answered...

You most certainly are at risk of "second hand chemo" if you are exposed to a patient regularly receiving chemotherapy if you aren't cautious. If you read the precautions provided when the patient starts the treatment it tells you to wear gloves if you are a caretaker, have them flush the toilet twice, and other instructions. I mix interferon subcutanious injections for my husband. Although I am very careful, I sometimes see a drip here and there. I am responsible for housework and have to clean the sheets, toilets, etc. i feel ill from time to time and I believe the mixture is the reason. Anyone who says that caregivers can't also be poisoned by the chemo they are handling is nonsensical. It is a POISON. How absurd is it to think it can't affect people who are near it.


A fellow caregiver answered...

My husband is about to start his second lot of chemo, he had it first a few years ago and none of this was told to us, we did ask about sex etc and was told it was fine. This time round... totally different story! We have been told we can't kiss (not even on the cheek), hug, have any sexual contact (not even with condoms) and if we choose to sleep in the same bed make sure we are both wearing full length pyjamas. Not just on chemo days but for the whole time... about 7 months. I am dreading it, when he's sick or worried or sad all I want to do is hold him and it breaks my heart I won't be able to.


A fellow caregiver answered...

I don't have an answer but I do have a question. My brother in law is battling stage 4 colon cancer. While helping give Medes I unknowingly held his chemo pill in my unprotected hand. I washed emmidately after knowing. I have called several pharmacist and they assured me I have nothing to worry about. Please tell me if I do or do not need to worry.


A fellow caregiver answered...

First, my experience pertains to my dog who has cancer -- I want to preface this by saying I don't mean to diminish anyone's experience by posting about this here, but I also feel a need to try and help other people who might be in my situation, since this was the only place I was able to find info after a long search on the problems I'm having. If you are caring for an aging dog on chemo, please, PLEASE take it from me and DO NOT touch anything s/he may have an accident on ... I did not think of this at all, which perhaps was silly, but I am most definitely getting sick from it now. I'm itchy, I'm exhausted, I'm nauseous, I can't concentrate, among other things.

My dog has been on a home regiment of chemo pills (palladia) for a year now (I know, that sounds bad, but he actually has little to no side effects and does much worse without it because of calcium levels). When I got these pills from the Vet, they told me to use gloves when dispensing them. Fine, I did that some of the time, I'll admit, not all of the time (sometimes I would dump his pills straight from the bottle into his ham without touching them, for the most part) ... Anyway, I was never warned about secondary chemo -- AT ALL. Not when he was initially on IV treatment, not with the pills, never. And, as you may imagine, dogs have a lot more excrement to pick up, they have more excrement to deal with in general (licking), and so on. It's just not something you'd think about, to be honest, or at least I didn't -- Dogs are messy, it's just something that had always been a part of dog life.

But, I am really feeling side effects from this ... Over the past year, several weird unexplainable and seemingly unconnected "things" have happened -- itchy ears, itchy hands, itchy face, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, nausea, etc.

I never go to the doctor, I'm pretty healthy overall and I'm not a person who generally gets concerned about things, especially when they're small in nature, even though they eventually became numerous ... But now that he's hit this aging point, where he is having accidents? It's REALLY noticeable, these "things" are much more prevalent, and it clicked with me the other day -- There IS a connection for all these things, and they all started (although with subtlety) at the same time, and got worse the more I was exposed to secondary sources (in this case, urine).

Initially I tried to find different explanations -- Did I have swimmer's ear from being in a lake last weekend? (But why is it lasting for months?) Was the water I was showering in harsher (the water where I live IS harsh) ... Was I depressed and therefore unable to concentrate and exhausted? (but I didn't feel like I should be depressed, I'm not really sure if I know how that feels though ...)

I strongly urge people to take this seriously -- for any situation regarding secondary chemo. However, I will add that in a human situation, it is likely more obvious when you're exposed, if that makes sense -- Your human loved one doesn't lick you without thought, you know? It was less apparent to me with the dog ... Although, maybe that was foolish.

Another thing to consider -- While it is a lower dose, most dogs receiving at-home chemo get it three times a week. This means that it is almost ALWAYS in his/her system -- Again, in smaller doses, but it's always there ...

I'm so glad I came across this post. So many people described what I've been experiencing for a while now ... And with greater intensity as exposure became greater. There's virtually no doubt in my mind now that the two are related. Again, I mean no disrespect by posting in this forum about a pet, and I hope it is not received as such. I just thought there might be other people out there in the same situation who would never put the two together and would be searching as I was ...

And to the editor of this page -- Shame on you. How dare you misguide people in such a dangerous way. Now that I know what I know about secondary chemo -- regardless of whether I'm actually experiencing it, the condition clearly exists -- I find it so incredibly irresponsible that the editor's post is allowed to remain on this page, AND at the TOP (I almost glossed over this page without scrolling down). How irresponsible ...

Again, I apologize for the pet post -- I hope it is perhaps helpful none-the-less, since it seems the symptoms are similar. I wish all of you strength and peace through this difficult time.


A fellow caregiver answered...

I tried to edit my answer and couldn't, but this might also be of interest to some ... My menstrual cycles have been off, to say the least, as well. Just an addition.


Chemo massage answered...

as a massage therapist and a wife of a husband on chemo I must take precautions as I have been sick after giving a massage to a few clients on chemo and my dog was sick from licking on a chemo patient. Its a shame our medical field is not paying attention to the second hand chemo . I agree that the editors post should not be at the top of this page it is misguiding.


Akbear49 answered...

This is a little off topic but to those who are on chemotherapy. Please look into the beneficial effects of Cannabis Oil ( yes pot ). I am amazed to read and now talk to others who have used it with success. You can legally buy the Cannabis Oil with the THC component removed. That is the part that gets you high and makes some cannabis oils illegal in some states. I myself am a second time cancer survivor and now patient. I've kept diaries of both experiences. About 24 hours after my first chemo in 2011 I was sick as a dog, this time I started using CDB Drip Oil without THC 2 days before my first chem and here I am about 40 hours after my first chemo and I feel OK. Not 100% but no nausea. Seriously just google Cannabis Oil and cancer, tons of claims of easing the symptoms and even curing the cancers. Fortunately we never had any issues with second hand chemo because we had the proper warnings. I'm here because I wanted to get a better understanding of how I could possibly be toxic to others for 3 days. Thank you for your answer. And to you nurses are you wearing and regularly changing gloves & face masks and taking all the precautions.? I really hate hearing your suffering.


Bryanb answered...

I've had a hyper sensitivity on the skin of my stomach and back for the past 6 days. It occurred to me that I was getting second hand chemo from my wife's skin, which is about where we touch in bed. She has ovarian cancer and is presently on carbo platinum and Caelyx chemotherapy, Caelyx has some terrible side effects, most notably where patients skin sweats. The sweat seems to burn theirr skin.. I feel like I am having a less severe reaction, but may be the answer to this odd pain that just showed up. Let's hope they find a cure for this awful disease.