Chemotherapy and Nervous System Side Effects

Chemotherapy is designed to stop a cancer cell from making duplicates of itself. When a cancer cell stops replicating, then the cell and its abnormalities die out. Cancer cells are known to replicate much more rapidly than healthy cells in the body. Since they divide faster, this means chemotherapy drugs will work more quickly in cancer cells than in regular body cells.

This is the key to why chemo can kill off the cancer, but not kill other cells in the body. Damage occurs more quickly because of the rapid production of new cancer cells.

That said, chemotherapy is still toxic to the body as a whole, which is why people can feel very sick while undergoing treatment. Every organ in the body has the potential of suffering some damage; the brain and nervous system may be affected, producing some very uncomfortable side effects.

The Brain

Patients receiving chemotherapy have long stated it changes how the brain functions. While the brain is somewhat protected due to the blood brain barrier, some of the chemicals and metabolites can make it through. Cancer patients undergoing treatment report confusion, difficulty with memory, difficulty focusing on tasks, and an increased risk of injuring themselves while performing activities that require them to concentrate.

This can have a direct impact on being able to work, earn money, and care for oneself and others.

The Peripheral Nervous System

The peripheral nervous system is made up of the nerves that exit the spinal cord and travel throughout the entire body. These nerves are not protected by the blood brain barrier, which means nerve cells are directly impacted by chemotherapy drugs. There are a number of serious side effects of chemotherapy on the nervous system. These include:

  • Altered sense of taste and smell
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Ringing in the ears, or hearing loss
  • Blurred or double vision, vision loss
  • Balance problems and difficulty with coordination and fine motor movement
  • Vertigo and consequent nausea
  • Seizures
  • Partial paralysis
  • Constipation, incontinence and impotence
  • Tingling pain and numbness in the extremities (peripheral neuropathy)

While some of these side effects will go away within a few weeks of chemotherapy stopping, other symptoms may last months to years. They can affect quality of life and ability to earn a living.


Greg Vigna MD, JD is a practicing rehabilitation doctor. He is also certified as a Life Care planner, which means he is can determine long term medical needs based on the side effects of an illness and its treatment. If you used talc based products, such and Johnson & Johnsons’ baby powder around the vaginal area and developed ovarian cancer, the manufacturer may be responsible. Please contact Dr. Vigna today for a free case evaluation.