Chemotherapy is one of the treatments that cancer specialists prescribe to cancer patients. While it is a successful treatment in most cases, it is also difficult for patients and their families to go through. If you know someone going through it or, if you will be undergoing the treatment anytime soon, here are some answers to questions you may have.
What is Chemotherapy?
In simple words, chemotherapy or ‘chemo’ is a complete or part of the treatment plan doctors use to control cancer cells. It may be used alongside other treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy.
Specifically, chemotherapy is a treatment that includes a drug or a combination of many drugs. These drugs target cancerous cells, rendering them unable to reproduce. Even though chemotherapy can be a targeted treatment, it does sometimes effect normal healthy cells present in the body.
How Is It Performed?
The chemotherapy process is performed in a hospital setting or can be done at home. Normally, it is administered intravenously usually in a hospital setting. A needle is inserted into your arm that is connected to a tube containing drugs. (Other ways include capsules liquids or topical applications. It is always a good idea to visit the hospital for most of these ways unless your doctor recommends you to stay at home. This is usually determined by your team of doctors and varies from patient to patient.
How Long Does it Last?
There is no prescribed time for chemo. It varies from the kind and stage of cancer and depends on the patient and their history. It can be as small as a single dose or treatment can be administered on a more frequent basis- lasting for weeks. The treatment plan may change if the patient is undergoing other treatments alongside chemo.
However, it is common for patients to go through the standard cycles of chemotherapy. Typically, a cycle means three weeks before the next chemo is administered. For four to eight cycles, a patient may go through three to six months of chemotherapy treatment.
Is It Effective?
Chemotherapy targets cancer cells and prevents them from reproducing further. In that sense, it is an effective treatment. However, your doctor may recommend it as an adjunct as treatment to reduce the size of a tumor before operating on it. Moreover, it can prevent the recurrence of cancer by slowing down cell growth.
As such, chemotherapy is considered a successful treatment because of its efficiency. For breast and ovarian cancer, chemotherapy can be used as a treatment in many ways depending on the doctor’s advice. It can be used as a primary treatment or as a treatment before surgery or after surgery. The goal of the treatment varies, depending on what stage chemotherapy is being administered. It could be to shrink the size of the cancer cells so that surgery can be conducted easily, or it could be done to reduce the risk of cancer cells returning. However, improving quality of life and ensuring that cancer cells are killed successfully are some of the benefits that come with this treatment.
What Is Targeted Therapy?
In addition to chemotherapy, another treatment that works well for breast cancer is targeted therapy. Since a mutation of genes and proteins causes cancer, targeted therapy helps minimize or altogether cancel their growth. The treatment involves drugs that are used alongside chemotherapy. Your doctor may identify a particular gene or a cancer-causing protein and administer drugs that only work on them. As the name suggests, it only targets cancerous cells in the breast or any other site without harming the healthy functioning ones. Special medication suggested by your doctor is used to target specific cells that cause abnormal growth. Moreover, your doctor may also order a test to determine your specific mutation- to curate an effective targeted therapy treatment for you.
The basic difference between chemotherapy and targeted therapy is that chemo affects healthy living cells too. But targeted therapy does not harm cells other than those which are cancerous. However, it is quite common to find that both types of treatments result in some sort of side effects due to the medication. Children who have cancer benefit from chemotherapy treatment because of its success rate. Studies reveal that they are more likely to recover from cancer without any long-term side effects occurring later in life.
What Are Its Side Effects?
Chemo affects normal cells,too. This is why its effects can be seen and felt in the entire body. One of the most common side effects is hair loss. You may notice it after several sessions because hair follicles become weak over the course of the treatment. Many patients shave their hair entirely or wear a cap or hat during the treatment. However, once chemotherapy stops, you may see hair growth within three to six months.
Nausea and vomiting are also common side effects. Some patients may be unable to eat or drink directly after chemo. Thus, loss of appetite and vomiting may lead to weight loss. Unfortunately, this paves the way for another side effect. Fatigue is caused not just by the heavy doses of treatment but also due to vomiting. To minimize fatigue, it is recommended that one rests as much as possible.
Chemo also causes patients to become more susceptible to infections. This is because the treatment impacts white blood cells, as well as the cancer it is intended to attack. Since white cells ensure immunity, a cancer patient’s immunity may weaken during treatment. Thus, special care and attention should be taken when it comes to hygiene and cleanliness. One side effect that may be difficult to cope up with includes declining mental health. For example, a person undergoing chemo may feel depressed or anxious due to medication and the fluctuating health of the body. They may be unable to enjoy life or participate in daily activities. To counter this, such patients must be given due care in the form of mental health support. Seeing a counselor or joining a cancer support group can be beneficial in overcoming the negative thoughts and feelings associated with chemotherapy.
Please keep in mind: it is not likely that a person undergoing chemotherapy will have all of these side effects. One side effect may be more enhanced in a patient, while it may not occur in another.
What Can One Do?
It is important that the cancer patient is carefully taken care of during and after chemotherapy. While the side effects may be difficult to handle initially, it is good to know what a patient can do to minimize and manage the treatment’s effects over time. Since nausea is one of the most common symptoms, a patient can ask their oncologist to prescribe anti-nausea and anti-vomit tablets. As such, it is best to take smaller meals with high calories throughout the day than to take three big meals. Additionally, liquid meals can be taken if solid foods are too difficult. The fatigue chemo patients experience due to heavy medication and loss of appetite can be a tough side effect to deal with. However, it is recommended that patients try to remain as active as possible to ensure that their body functions normally. As always, it is always best to ask your doctor before including any type of physical activity into your routine.
Since chemotherapy and cancer are life-altering, it is a good idea to join a support group of individuals who are going through the same treatment as you- or the patient you are caring for. A therapy group or a support counselor at your hospital is a great way to help ensure that everyone is getting the proper support throughout their cancer journey. Remember, mental health can be affected severely, for both the patient- and their caregiver. A positive attitude during this difficult time may have a very beneficial effect on the treatment’s efficiency.
Disclaimer: Please note: this blog post is provided for informational purposes and is not intended to replace the guidance of your personal physician. Please consult a medical professional if you have any concerns after reading this or other blog posts on this website.