Neutropenia, anemia, peripheral neuropathy—don’t let lesser-known side effects of chemo catch you by surprise. Here’s what to know to stay well.
Chemo can cause white blood cells to plummet to abnormally low levels, a condition called neutropenia. Since white blood cells fight off infections, it’s vital that they remain in the normal range so you can stay on your chemo schedule.
Report: Any signs of infection, including fever, chills and aches.
What your doctor can do: Prescribe medication that elevates white blood cell levels.
What you can do: Wash your hands often, stay away from sick people and avoid procedures, dental work or vaccinations, all of which can increase your infection risk.
Some chemo drugs can lower your red blood cell count, causing anemia.
Report: Fatigue, weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath.
What your doctor can do: If your anemia is severe, he may recommend a drug or a blood transfusion to boost your red blood cell count.
What you can do: Rest when you need to, eat well and exercise when you feel up to it.
Some chemo drugs can damage nerves in hands and feet, which is known as peripheral neuropathy.
Report: Numbness, tingling or a “pins and needles” sensation in your hands and feet, loss of balance.
What your doctor can do: Prescribe a pain reliever or adjust your chemo drugs.
What you can do: Avoid extreme temps and protect hands and feet.
Why you need frequent blood tests
Getting a complete blood count (CBC) is essential during chemo to make sure you’re not experiencing the side effects above. It is usually done right before you get your chemo and then about two weeks later. Here is what your CBC reveals and the readings that mean your levels are in a healthy range. Depending on which chemo meds you’re getting, other blood tests, such as for calcium and magnesium, may also be added.
Type of cells
If your count is
Red blood cells
Transport oxygen-rich hemoglobin through your body
4.7-6.1 million cells/mcL (male); 4.2-5.4 million cells/mcL (female)
A low red blood cell count means you are anemic and that your body has to work much harder to supply oxygen to your tissues. This can leave you feeling tired and short of breath.
White blood cells
Help protect your body against infection
4,500 to 10,000 cells/mcL
If levels of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, are too low, you have neutropenia, a condition that makes you vulnerable to infection.
Cause your blood to clot
150,000 to 400,000 platelets/mcL
If your platelet count is too low, you may not be able to stop bleeding.