Skin Cancer: Side Effects



Diarrhea is frequent, loose or watery bowel movements. It is a common side effect of certain chemotherapeutic drugs or of radiation therapy to the pelvis, such as in women with uterine, cervical or ovarian cancers. It can also be caused by certain tumors, such as pancreatic cancer.

Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

Xerostomia occurs when the salivary glands do not make enough saliva, or spit, to keep the mouth moist. Because saliva is needed for chewing, swallowing, tasting and talking, these activities may be more difficult with a dry mouth. Dry mouth can be caused by chemotherapy or radiation treatment, which can damage the salivary glands. Dry mouth caused by chemotherapy is usually temporary and normally clears up about two to eight weeks after treatment ends. Radiation treatment to the head, face or neck can cause dry mouth and is most common with radiation treatment to the oral cavity to treat head and neck cancer.


An extreme exhaustion or tiredness, and is the most common problem people with cancer experience. More than half of patients experience fatigue during chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and up to 70 percent of patients with advanced cancer experience fatigue. Patients who feel fatigue often say that even a small effort, such as walking across a room, can seem like too much.

Flu-Like Symptoms

Interferon alfa-2b and interleukin-2 are immunologic and biologic therapies and are associated with many symptoms that are commonly associated with flu or a cold, such as fever, chills and malaise. These symptoms diminish with repetitive treatments and differ from the side effects commonly associated with cancer chemotherapy drugs that are not biologics. Supportive treatment of these symptoms is as important as the support of other side effects of cancer treatment.


Hair Loss (Alopecia)

A potential side effect of radiation therapy and chemotherapy is hair loss. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy cause hair loss by damaging the hair follicles responsible for hair growth. Hair loss may occur throughout the body, including the head, face, arms, legs, underarms and pubic area. The hair may fall out entirely, gradually, or in sections. In some cases, the hair will simply thin (sometimes unnoticeably) and may become duller and dryer. Losing one’s hair can be a psychologically and emotionally challenging experience and can affect a patient’s self-image and quality of life. However, the hair loss is usually temporary, and the hair often grows back.


An infection occurs when harmful bacteria, viruses or fungi (such as yeast) invade the body and the immune system is not able to destroy them quickly enough. Patients with cancer are more likely to develop infections because both cancer and cancer treatments (particularly chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the bones or extensive areas of the body) can weaken the immune system. Symptoms of infection include fever (temperature of 100.5°F or higher); chills or sweating; sore throat or sores in the mouth; abdominal pain; pain or burning when urinating or frequent urination; diarrhea or sores around the anus; cough or breathlessness; redness, swelling or pain, particularly around a cut or wound; and unusual vaginal discharge or itching.

Fluid in the Arms or Legs (Llymphedema)

Lymphedema is the abnormal buildup of fluid in the lymphatic system, the series of channels and nodes (small sacs that hold fluid) that carries lymph through the body and helps fight infection and disease. Lymph is a clear liquid that carries protein and cells that fight infection. When cancers metastasize (spread), cells first go to the lymph nodes and then are carried to other parts of the body. Lymphedema can develop immediately after cancer surgery or radiation therapy, or it can develop months or years later. The most common causes of lymphedema include surgery to remove the lymph nodes, especially for breast cancer, prostate cancer or melanoma; radiation therapy to the lymph nodes; metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread from its primary location); bacterial or fungal infection; injury to the lymph nodes; and other diseases involving the lymph system.

Mouth Sores (Mucositis)

Mucositis is an inflammation of the inside of the mouth and throat, leading to painful ulcers and mouth sores. It occurs in up to 40 percent of patients receiving chemotherapy treatments. Mucositis can be caused by a chemotherapeutic drug directly, the reduced immunity brought on by chemotherapy or radiation treatment to the head and neck area.

Nausea and Vomiting

Vomiting, also called emesis or throwing up, is the act of expelling the contents of the stomach through the mouth. It is a natural way for the body to rid itself of harmful substances. Nausea is the urge to vomit. Nausea and vomiting are common in patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer and in some patients receiving radiation therapy. Many patients with cancer say they fear nausea and vomiting more than any other side effects of treatment. When it is minor and treated quickly, nausea and vomiting can be quite uncomfortable but cause no serious problems. Persistent vomiting can cause dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, weight loss, depression and avoidance of chemotherapy.

Nervous System Disturbances

Nervous system disturbances can be caused by many different factors, including cancer, cancer treatments, medications, or other disorders. Symptoms that result from a disruption or damage to the nerves caused by cancer treatment (such as surgery, radiation treatment or chemotherapy) can appear soon after treatment or many years later.

Skin Problems

Skin is an organ system that contains many nerves. Because of this, skin problems can be very painful. Many patients find skin problems especially difficult to cope with because the skin is on the outside of the body and visible to others. Because the skin protects the inside of the body from infection, skin problems can often lead to other serious problems. As with other side effects, prevention or early treatment is best. In other cases, treatment and wound care can often improve pain and quality of life. Skin problems can have many different causes, including chemotherapeutic drugs leaking out from the intravenous (IV) tube, which can cause pain or burning,; peeling or burned skin caused by radiation therapy; pressure ulcers (bed sores) caused by constant pressure on one area of the body; and pruritis (itching), most often caused by leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma or other cancers.

Taste Changes

Dysgeusia refers to a change in the way foods taste. Some foods may taste different than they used to, foods may not have much taste at all or everything may taste the same. Bitter, sweet and salty foods may taste different than they did before, and some patients experience a metallic or chemical taste in their mouth, especially after eating meat or other high-protein foods. Taste changes can lead to food aversions (dislikes), loss of appetite and weight loss. Taste changes are a common side effect of chemotherapy. About 50% of patients receiving chemotherapy experience taste changes. Radiation therapy to the head and neck can cause taste changes because of damage to the taste buds. Radiation therapy can also cause changes to the sense of smell. Since smell and taste are closely linked, changes to the sense of smell can affect how foods taste.