Chemotherapy: All You Need to Know

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy are the drugs that prevent cancer cells from growing and dividing by destroying the dividing cells. Chemotherapy is a widely used treatment for cancer.

The effectiveness of chemotherapy depends on the stage of the cancer being treated. The benefits of chemotherapy usually compensate the risk of hostile effects.

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Cells are continually replaced through a process of dividing and growing as part of the body’s natural process. However, when cancer occurs, cells reproduce in an uncontrolled manner. They begin to inhabit an increasing amount of space until they occupy the space earlier occupied by useful cells.

The objective of chemotherapy drugs is to inhibit a cancer cell’s ability to divide and reproduce. A single drug or a combination of drugs is used which can be delivered either directly into the bloodstream, to attack cancer cells throughout the body, or they can be targeted to precise cancer sites.

What Chemotherapy Does

Chemotherapy drugs can:

  • target the enzymes and hormones that cancer cells require to grow
  • damage mitosis, or prevent cell division, as in the case of cytotoxic drugs
  • cause the suicide of cancer cells, known medically as apoptosis
  • stop the growth of new blood vessels that feed a tumor

The efficacy of stopping blood flow and oxygen to the tumor has been questioned in recent years. Instead of starving the cells, studies have suggested that stopping the blood flow may augment the cells’ ability to resist treatment and cause metastasis.

What to expect during chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can have severe effects since it is an invasive treatment. This is because the drugs often target cancerous cells and healthy cells. The adverse effects of chemotherapy in some cases is bearable because it can achieve a complete cure.

Before commencement of treatment, patients are expected to know;

How long chemotherapy last

The patient will need regular chemotherapy over a period that will be specified by the oncologist. A plan will be drawn to postulate when treatment sessions will occur and for how long.

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A course of treatment can range from a single dose on one day to a few weeks, depending on the cancer type and cancer stage. Patients who need more than one course of treatment will have a rest period to allow their body to recuperate.

Treatment could occur on one day, followed by a week’s rest, then another one-day treatment followed by a three-week rest period, and so on. This may be repeated many times.

A psychologist or counselor may be available to help the patient deal with the mental and emotional torment of chemotherapy.

Blood tests before and during chemotherapy

To evaluate the patient’s health and to ensure that they will be able to cope with possible side effects of chemotherapy, blood tests is usually conducted. If  the results of the blood test shows a low count of red or white cells or platelets in the blood, treatment may need to be deferred.

Regular blood tests will continue during the treatment period to ensure that blood and liver function are maintained as far as possible, and to monitor the efficiency of the treatment.

How the dose is administered

The patient may take chemotherapy orally or intravenously depending on the type of cancer. Oral chemotherapy: If the patient’s health permits, tablets can sometimes be taken at home. However, the patient will have to make regular hospital visits to check their health and response to treatment. The medication may also be in capsule or liquid form.

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Intravenous chemotherapy: This may be injected directly into a vein with a needle or delivered through an intravenous infusion.

Side effects of chemotherapy

Adverse effects can range from mild to severe depending on the type and extent of the treatment and other individual factors. Some people will have no adverse effects. The impact of treatment on a person’s daily life will depend on the magnitude of the symptoms.

Some of the adverse effects that may occur.

  1. Alopecia, or hair loss

For some chemotherapy types, hair may start to fall and become thin a few weeks after commencement of treatment. It can affect any part of the body. Patients are advised to use a wig or other suitable covering for the head.

Using a cold cap can keep the scalp cool while a dose is being administered, and this may reduce hair loss. Though some patients cannot use a cold cap, such as those with leukemia who need the medication to reach their scalp. Hair normally grows back soon after treatment is completed.

Apart from hair loss, nails, too, can become flaky and brittle. The skin may become dry and oversensitive to sunlight. Patients receiving chemotherapy should stay out of the sun during peak times, use sun blocks, and wear protective clothing.

  1. Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting affects most patients. Anti-emetic drugs may help. These should be taken even when symptoms have gone, to prevent them from recurring. To increase the efficacy of anti-emetics, ginger or ginger supplements may help.

  1. Loss of appetite

Chemotherapy or the cancer itself can affect the metabolism of the body, leading to a loss of appetite and weight loss until treatment is finished. Consuming smaller, more frequent meals may help to keep up a supply of nourishment. Drinking liquids through a straw can help maintain fluid intake.

Patients who are unable to consume food or liquid may need to be hospitalized and fed through a tube which goes through the nose and directly to the stomach.

  1. Fatigue

Fatigue is a common side effect that may be present most of the time or only after certain activities. Patients should get lots of rest and avoid exhaustive tasks. Severe tiredness could be an indication of drop in red blood cells. Patients should report this to their doctor.

  1. Mucositis

This is the inflammation of the mucous membrane. It can affect any part of the digestive system, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, the rectum, and the anus.

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Oral mucositis can start 7 to 10 days after treatment. Symptoms include severe pain as if the mouth has been burned. Ulcers can appear on the lining of the mouth, the tongue, and around the lips, making eating, drinking, and talking to become quite painful.

The severity of symptoms is linked to the strength of the chemotherapy dose. Caphosol is often prescribed for mucositis. Symptoms normally disappear a few weeks after finishing treatment.

  1. Low white blood cell count and susceptibility to infections

The immune system will be weakened because the white blood cell count will drop during chemotherapy, leading to a condition called neutropenia. White blood cells form part of our immune system, and they combat infection. This can make patients more prone to infections.

  1. Mental health problems

Majority of patients report problems with cognitive and mental health problems while on chemotherapy. These may include problems with thinking, attention, short-term memory loss, ability to organize, multitask, and reason. This may persist for months or years after treatment.

  1. Hearing impairment

The toxic effects of chemotherapy can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss in some patients.

  1. Low blood platelet count

Low blood platelet count is also known as thrombocytopenia. It can can lead to blood clotting problems. Platelets are a type of blood cell that helps the blood to clot. A low platelet count can lead to bruises, nosebleeds and bleeding gums. The blood flow from a minor cut may be hard to stop.

  1. Low red blood-cell count and anemia

A low level of red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen to all the tissues in the body will lead to anemia. Symptoms include tiredness, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations. A person with severe anemia may need an critical blood transfusion.

Erythropoietin (EPO) is a drug that makes the body produce more red blood cells. Food sources rich in iron include beans, raisins, dark green leafy vegetables, meat, nuts, apricots, prunes, and raisins.

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Chemotherapy can be quite costly, so it is essential to discuss with yo doctor to find out what your options are. While some people may still be able to work during chemotherapy, others may need sick leave.

Effectiveness of chemotherapy depends on the type, location, and stage of cancer. Also, the age and overall health of the patient will be taken into consideration.

In some cases, chemotherapy can completely cure cancer. Chemotherapy can also be combined with other treatments, such as radiation therapy or surgery, for best results.


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