Which systems in the body are affected by chemotherapy?

1 answer | Last updated: Jul 22, 2013
A fellow caregiver asked...

Which systems in the body are affected by chemotherapy?


Expert Answers

Bruce A. Feinberg, MD, chief of the Georgia Cancer Specialists, is an oncologist and the author of Breast Cancer Answers and Colon Cancer Answers and a popular speaker on cancer-related topics.

There are many different drugs that fall into the category of chemotherapy medications. Since they are made from different chemicals, they can have very different and specific side effects that affect different parts of the body. A few chemotherapy drugs have a very narrow target, and affect a certain kind of cells and not others. (Such as Herceptin, which targets the HER2 protein in breast cancer.) But most chemotherapy drugs are not specific, and work by killing off all fast-growing cells throughout the body. This is why some areas are paticularly affected, such as the hair follicles, the digestive tract, and the bone marrow. These are all areas with high cell turnover, leading to side effects such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting, and low blood cell counts.