Doctors usually recommend chemotherapy as a treatment for cancer. Chemotherapy uses drugs that kill dividing cancer cells and prevent them from growing.
The side effects of many chemotherapy drugs can be serious. However, if a doctor recommends a person to undergo chemotherapy, it usually means that the benefits may outweigh any adverse effects.
A person usually treats chemotherapy as part of an overall treatment plan, which may also include surgery and radiation therapy. These therapies are effective in many cancer cases. However, their effectiveness often depends on the stage of the cancer and other factors.
Going to the doctor will help a person understand the expectations of chemotherapy.
Read on to learn more about chemotherapy and what it involves.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy drugs treat cancer by preventing cancer cells from dividing.
A healthy body constantly replaces cells through the process of division and growth. When cancer occurs, cells multiply in an uncontrolled manner.
As more and more cells are produced in a part of the body, they begin to occupy the space previously occupied by useful cells.
Chemotherapy drugs interfere with the ability of cancer cells to divide and reproduce.
A single drug or combination of drugs can stop the cells from reproducing.
Treatment can be:
- Preventing cancer cell division
- Food sources that target cancer cells (the enzymes and hormones they need to grow)
- Triggering apoptosis or “suicide” in cancer cells
Some emerging therapies are designed to stop new blood vessels feeding the tumor from growing and starve them. Some scientists are concerned that this strategy may promote cancer growth and spread in some cases.
However, in 2018, other researchers concluded that this might help some people.
Why use chemotherapy?
Your doctor may recommend chemotherapy:
- Shrink tumor before surgery
- After surgery or remission, remove any remaining cancer cells and delay or prevent recurrence
- Slows disease progression and reduces later symptoms, even if unlikely to cure
What to expect from chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is an invasive treatment that can cause serious adverse reactions during and for some time after treatment. This is because drugs often target both cancer cells and healthy cells.
However, early treatment involving chemotherapy can sometimes be completely cured. This makes many side effects worthwhile. Moreover, most unwanted symptoms disappear after the treatment is over.
How long does Chemotherapy Last?
The doctor will plan with the individual to specify when and how much treatment is needed.
A course of treatment can range from a single dose a day to several weeks, depending on the type and stage of the cancer.
Those who need more than one course of treatment will have a break to recover their body.
A person may receive treatment one day, then take a week off, then another day of treatment, then three weeks off, and so on. A person may repeat several times.
Some people may find it helpful to talk to a counsellor about the psychological and emotional aspects of cancer and chemotherapy.
Blood tests can assess a patient’s health and ensure they can cope with possible side effects.
Liver health: The liver breaks down chemicals and other drugs. Liver overload can cause other problems. If a blood test finds liver problems before treatment, the person may have to postpone treatment until recovery.
Low red or white blood cell or platelet counts: If these blood counts are low before treatment, patients may need to wait until they reach a healthy level before starting chemotherapy.
Regular blood tests during treatment are important to ensure that blood and liver function remain as healthy as possible, and to monitor the effectiveness of the treatment.
What’s the dose?
Most people will receive chemotherapy in a clinical setting, but sometimes one can receive chemotherapy at home.
Methods of chemotherapy include:
- Taken orally, as tablets, liquids or capsules
- Intravenous injection or infusion
- Locally on the skin
- In some cases, a person may be able to take medication at home. However, they will need to go to the hospital
- regularly to check their health and response to treatment.
The person must take the medicine exactly as prescribed by the doctor. If they forget to take the medicine at the right time, they should call a doctor immediately.
Sometimes a person will need continuous doses. This means they may have to wear a pump to slowly deliver the drug for weeks or months. They can wear pumps in their daily lives.
The 12 side effects of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy may produce mild to severe adverse reactions, depending on the type and degree of treatment. Some people may have few adverse reactions.
Various adverse effects can occur, including:
1: Nausea and vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are typical side effects. Your doctor may prescribe antiemetic medication to help reduce symptoms.
One study suggests that taking ginger or ginger supplements may help increase the effectiveness of antiemetics.
2: Lose of hair, nails and skin
A few weeks after starting some types of chemotherapy, some people may lose their hair, or their hair may become thinner or more brittle. It can affect any part of the body.
Wearing a special hat keeps your scalp cool during chemotherapy, which helps prevent or reduce hair loss. However, if the treatment needs to reach the scalp, this will not be possible.
Counselors can provide advice on obtaining a wig or other suitable cover. Most people find that their hair grows back after completing the treatment.
Nails can also become flaky and brittle. The skin may become dry, sore, and overly sensitive to sunlight.
People should take care in direct sunlight, including:
- Avoid the sun at noon
- Use sunscreen
- Wear clothing that provides maximum protection
- What foods can help people grow their hair? Learn more here.
Some people may feel tired. They may experience this most of the time or only after certain activities.
To reduce fatigue, one should try:
- Get plenty of rest
- Avoid overworked tasks
- Severely tired people should see a doctor as this may be a sign of anemia
4: Hearing impaired
Toxins in certain types of chemotherapy can affect the nervous system, causing:
- Tinnitus or tinnitus
- Temporary or permanent hearing loss
- Balance problem
- Anyone should report hearing changes to a doctor.
Chemotherapy causes a decrease in the number of white blood cells, which helps protect the body from infection. This leads to a weakened immune system and a higher risk of infection.
People should take precautions to reduce the risk of infection.
- Wash your hands regularly
- Keep the wound clean
- Follow proper food hygiene guidelines
- If someone suspects an infection, treat it early
- Doctors may prescribe antibiotics to help reduce risk.
6: Bleeding issues
Chemotherapy can reduce a person’s platelet count. This means that the blood will no longer clot as usual.
The person may encounter:
- Easy bruising
- Small incision bleeding more than usual
- Frequent nosebleeds or bleeding gums
- If the platelet count is too low, the person may need a blood transfusion.
People should take extra care when cooking, gardening or shaving to reduce the risk of injury.
Red blood cells carry oxygen to all tissues in the body. Chemotherapy can cause red blood cell levels to decrease. This will lead to anemia.
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive iron intake may help the body absorb more red blood cells. People can get extra iron from their diet.
Good food sources include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Plums, raisins and apricots
Anyone experiencing severe or worsening symptoms of anemia should see a doctor. Some people may need blood transfusions.
Mucositis or inflammation of the mucous membranes can affect any part of the digestive system, from the mouth to the anus.
Oral mucositis can affect the mouth. It usually appears 7-10 days after starting treatment. Depending on the dose of chemotherapy, symptoms may make eating or speaking painful. Some people have a burning sensation in their mouth or lips. If bleeding occurs, it may mean that a person is infected or at risk. Symptoms usually disappear within a few weeks of completing treatment.
Your doctor may prescribe medicine to help prevent or treat it.
9: Appetite Loss
Chemotherapy, cancer or both can affect the way the body processes nutrition, which can lead to loss of appetite and weight loss.
The severity depends on the type of cancer and chemotherapy, but patients usually recover their appetite after treatment.
Techniques for solving this problem include:
- Eat less and eat more
- Drink nutritious beverages such as smoothies through a straw to help maintain fluid and nutrient intake
- People who find it difficult to eat may need to spend time in the hospital, where medical staff can provide nutrition through the vein or through a feeding tube.
10: pregnancy and fertility
People often lose interest in sex during chemotherapy, but usually recover after treatment.
Fertility: Certain types of chemotherapy can reduce fertility in both men and women. This is usually but not always the case after treatment. However, those who wish to have children in the future may consider freezing sperm or embryos for later use.
Pregnancy: It is unclear how completely different chemotherapy can affect fetal growth. If a pregnant woman needs chemotherapy during pregnancy, your doctor may recommend that you wait until after the first 12-14 weeks, as this is when the fetal organs develop rapidly. If the doctor thinks it is necessary, chemotherapy can be started after the first three months.
Pregnant women will receive the last dose of chemotherapy about 8 weeks before the date of delivery to reduce the risk of any infection of the mother and baby at birth.
Because chemotherapy can have serious adverse side effects, it is best to avoid getting pregnant during treatment. Your doctor can suggest appropriate birth control methods.
Anyone who is pregnant or pregnant during chemotherapy should tell your doctor immediately.
11: difficulty in defecation
Chemotherapy can also cause diarrhea or constipation when the body expels damaged cells.
Symptoms usually begin a few days after the start of treatment.
12: Cognitive and Mental Health Issues
Up to 75% of people report problems with attention, thinking and short-term memory during chemotherapy. For up to 35% of patients, cognitive problems can persist months or years after treatment.
Chemotherapy can also cause difficulties in reasoning, organization, and multitasking. Some people experience mood swings and depression.
Treatment itself and an individual’s anxiety about the disease may also trigger or exacerbate these symptoms.
One can discuss with their doctor about the most suitable cancer treatment.
The types of chemotherapy include:
Alkylating agents: They affect DNA and kill cells at different stages of the cell’s life cycle.
Antimetabolites: These mimetic proteins are necessary for cell survival. When cells consume them, they don’t help and the cells starve.
Plant alkaloids: These alkaloids prevent cells from growing and dividing.
Antitumor antibiotics: They prevent cells from multiplying. They are different from the antibiotics people use for infections.
The doctor will recommend the right option for the individual. They may suggest combining chemotherapy with other options, such as radiation therapy or surgery.
Factors that affect the type of chemotherapy and its effects include:
- Cancer location, type and stage
- The person’s age, general health, and any existing medical conditions
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