Family Med-eZine TeamFriday, 04 Apr 2014, 06:35 pm

Chemotherapy is a form of cancer treatment, in which powerful medicines are used to kill cancer cells, slow down their growth and prevent them from spreading to other parts of the body.

The first thing to understand is that chemotherapy may or may not be as it is generally shown in the media and other popular forms of information platforms. There is no one single body response that one can generalise for all patients. This is because there are about 50 different types of chemotherapy drugs, which work in different ways to fight various types of cancers. Besides, every person’s body is different and hence responds to the treatment differently.

The chemo drugs are either given alone or are combined with other forms of treatment like surgery and radiation therapy. Depending upon the type of cancer, the doctor will be able to best decide the type and timing of chemotherapy and if it needs to be clubbed with surgery/radiation therapy. Chemo drugs reach the rapidly-dividing cancer cells present in various parts of the body through the blood stream, where they then destroy them. Once destroyed, these cells will be unable to grow and spread further in the body. Chemo thus helps control and cure cancer. In case, the cancerous growth/tumour is causing pain or leading to increased pressure, chemo treatment helps shrink these tumours and relieve symptoms.

What about side effects?

Unfortunately, along with the cancer cells, the chemo drugs also kill the normal healthy cells, which are rapidly-dividing—like blood cells, skin cells, hair follicles and cells in the stomach. Due to this damage to the normal healthy cells, there are certain physical side-effects. This is why chemo is usually associated with hair fall, blotchy skin and loss of appetite. However, it is important to understand that these damaged normal cells have the ability to grow back and become normal, once the chemo treatment is stopped. The side-effects associated with these normal cells also fade away as the chemo treatment stops.

Each cancer patient reacts differently to anti-cancer drugs and hence the resulting side-effects are also varied. These may occur with varying intensity in different patients and may either occur immediately after chemo treatment or even later, many months post chemotherapy. Some of the common side effects seen during and after chemotherapy are:

  • Feeling weak (Fatigue)
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhoea/Constipation
  • Infections
  • Anaemia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Skin & nail changes
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression/mood changes

How will I be given chemotherapy?

You will be given chemotherapy either as  

  • a medicine to swallow
  • an injection into a muscle/tissue
  • an injection into the blood stream (IV)
  • a skin cream 

Things I ought to be careful about

Prior to chemo, do let your doctor know if you : 

  • are on any other medications  
  • are pregnant (chemo treatment during the first 3 months may be harmful to the unborn baby)
  • have had a recent surgery
  • have had a severe kidney/liver disease
  • have a low blood cell count
  • have any ongoing infection
  • Avoid becoming pregnant during chemo treatment as some chemo drugs can cause birth defects

Understanding ChemotherapyMyths about chemotherapy 

  • Chemo kills only cancer cells

The truth is that chemotherapy not only kills the cancer cells, but affects the normal healthy cells as well, as chemo treatment cannot differentiate between normal and cancer cells. However the normal cells can grow back and become healthy.

  •  Chemo is painful

The truth is that some chemo drugs do not cause pain. Pain due to chemo treatment depends on the individual’s medical profile. Although pain cannot be completely eliminated, with advanced treatments it can now be well-managed and controlled.

  • Chemo causes nausea and vomiting

Not all chemo drugs cause nausea and vomiting. In fact, it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, where a few patients in anticipation of further treatment, begin feeling nauseous and start vomiting.

  • Chemo always results in hair loss

Not all cancer patients experience this side-effect, and it can be seen in varying degrees in various patients. Some lose no hair at all, while some do.

  • All chemo treatments are the same

Every cancer is different, every patient is different and so are their treatments. It is the doctor who will best decide and alter the form of the chemo treatment based on the location of the cancer, the extent to which it has spread and how the body functions are being affected.

To have complete clarity on chemo, how it works and what it does, it is best to consult your family doctor, who can help identify the exact responses of your body, and what to expect. Never go purely by other people’s experiences. 

Remember, chemotherapy helps fight cancer and so is in most cases, worth the discomfort.