As chemotherapy fights cancer, some healthy cells throughout the body are likely to be affected. Some side effects of chemotherapy are probably very familiar to you. There are other effects of some chemotherapy drugs that may seem odd. Here’s what you need to know to help avoid surprises.

What’s happening to my skin and nails?

Depending on which drugs you’re taking, chemotherapy may affect your skin in different ways. It may cause your skin to break out in a rash, or you may experience itchiness or dryness. The skin on your hands and feet may also begin to peel.

During treatment, your skin may be more sensitive to sunlight. This sensitivity may last for a few months after your treatment. Chemotherapy may also lead to changes in the color of your skin, especially if you have a darker complexion.

Your treatment may also affect your fingernails. Your nails may become discolored and cracked, or you may notice lines appearing. Some people’s fingernails may separate from the nail bed.

Experts recommend the following tips for caring for your skin and nails during chemotherapy:

  • Keep your skin clean.
  • Bathe or shower in warm water and pat yourself dry.
  • Use a gentle moisturizer.
  • Avoid products with alcohol or other ingredients that may dry your skin.
  • Avoid small scratches or nicks to your skin. Don’t bite your nails or cuticles.
  • Wear gloves when washing the dishes or gardening.
  • Protect your skin from the sun with clothing, a hat, and sunscreen. It’s best to spend time outside when the sun’s rays are less direct.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that you call your doctor about sudden or severe itching, a rash outbreak, or hives.

Why am I so forgetful?

Chemotherapy treatment may cause a symptom known as “chemo-brain.” You may find you’re more forgetful. You may misplace things more often, or have trouble with details. You may find it hard to concentrate or to multitask.

Often, these effects are subtle and last only a short time. For some people, these effects may last longer. The causes of these effects are difficult to pinpoint.

Experts recommend the following tips for coping with short-term memory loss during chemotherapy:

  • Write things down or keep to-do lists and reminders on your computer or smartphone.
  • Set a regular routine, including physical activity and plenty of rest. Avoid multitasking.
  • Exercise your brain with word puzzles or other engaging activities.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • When you notice memory problems, make a note of it. This will make it easier to share with your healthcare team and to devise coping strategies.

The National Cancer Society recommends talking to your doctor if memory problems are interfering with your job or daily life. 

Why doesn’t this food taste right?

Some chemotherapy causes people to experience what’s known as “chemo-mouth.” Certain foods, and even water, may take on a metallic-like taste. Other people may find food tastes bitter or like nothing at all.

Even foods that you love may lose their appeal. Some people find changes in the way food tastes more difficult to manage than nausea.

Chemo-mouth often lasts throughout treatment. It may take a few months for your sense of taste to return to normal.

Experts recommend these tips for coping with chemo-mouth:

  • Experiment with foods. The metallic taste may be worse with certain foods. If a food doesn’t taste good to you, try replacing it with something else. For example, substitute meat with another source of protein such as eggs or tofu.
  • Add flavor. Small adjustments to your food can also help. A little sweetener such as maple syrup may counteract the metallic taste. If food tastes too sweet or salty, try a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of vinegar. Marinate meat in fruit juice or a vinegar-based sauce. If you can’t taste anything, a dash of sea salt or some healthy fat may help. Condiments such as mustard or salsa also help to boost flavor.
  • Turn down the temperature. You may find that meat or other foods taste better when served cold.
  • Pass the fruit. Many people find that fruit tastes good. Try it fresh, juiced, or in a fruit sorbet or Popsicle.
  • Don’t force it. It’s best not to eat foods that really don’t taste good to you. Try to find foods that go down a little easier.
  • Get the taste out of your mouth. Before meals, it may help to rinse your mouth with salt water, ginger ale, or juice. Hard candies or lemon drops may help to cover up unpleasant tastes. Try a mint or chewing gum after a meal.

The National Cancer Institute recommends taking special care of your mouth during chemotherapy. Let your doctor know if it’s difficult to eat or swallow. Brush and rinse gently. If your mouth or lips are sore, avoid foods or beverages that cause you pain or discomfort.

Should I be worried?

Chemotherapy can lead to many different symptoms. Your personal experience with cancer treatment will be uniquely your own.

Ask your oncologist what symptoms you might expect and when you should be worried. Don’t hesitate to ask your loved ones or caregivers for help when it’s needed. Contact your healthcare team if you notice something that doesn’t feel right.