Chemotherapy is the use of medication (chemicals) to treat disease. More specifically, chemotherapy typically refers to the destruction of cancer cells. However, chemotherapy may also include the use of antibiotics or other medications to treat any illness or infection.
Cytotoxic medication prevents cancer cells from dividing and growing. When health care professionals talk about chemotherapy today, they generally tend to refer more to cytotoxic medication than others.
Chemotherapy has five possible goals
- Total remission– to cure the patient completely. In some cases chemotherapy alone can get rid of the cancer completely.
- Combination therapy– chemotherapy can help other therapies, such as radiotherapy or surgery have more effective results.
- Delay/Prevent recurrence– chemotherapy, when used to prevent the return of a cancer, is most often used after a tumor is removed surgically..
- Slow down cancer progression– used mainly when the cancer is in its advanced stages and a cure is unlikely. Chemotherapy can slow down the advancement of the cancer.
- To relieve symptoms– also more frequently used for patients with advanced cancer.
How does chemotherapy work?
When our body cells are damaged or die we produce new ones to replace them. This is done in an orderly way, in a balanced way. Cancer cells do not have that orderly capacity – their reproduction (division and growth) is out of control – more and more of them are produced and they start to occupy more and more space, until eventually they push out space occupied by useful cells.
Chemotherapy (chemo) drugs interfere with a cancer cell’s ability to divide and reproduce. Chemo drugs may be applied into the bloodstream to attack cancer cells throughout the body, or they can be delivered directly to specific cancer sites.
Chemotherapy, pregnancy and contraception
Many chemotherapy drugs may cause birth defects. It is important that a woman undergoing chemotherapy avoids becoming pregnant. As most chemotherapy medications interfere with oral contraceptives it is important to use a barrier method of contraception such as condoms, during the whole chemotherapy treatment period and for a year after treatment is completed. If you are pregnant you need to tell the medical team straight away beforehand. If you become pregnant during treatment tell the medical team straight away.
Side effects of chemotherapy
Most people immediately link chemotherapy with uncomfortable side effects. However, side-effect management has improved considerably over the last twenty years. Many side effects that were once inevitable can be either prevented or well controlled today.
There is no reliable way to predict how patients may react to chemotherapy. Some experience very mild side-effect, others will have none at all, while some people will report various symptoms.
Depending on the type of cancer and treatment, chemotherapy may have a bigger impact on the patient’s work status than radiotherapy.
Common side effects include: nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, low white cell count, low blood platelet count, low red cell count, loss of appetite, nail and skin changes, diarrhea, low sex drive, cognitive impairment.
In conclusion, Chemotherapy may be used alone or in combination with other forms of treatment (Radiotherapy, Hormonal therapy, etc) to treat Cancer.
EARLY DETECTION is key to total remission. If you notice anything unusual, please book an appointment to see your Doctor immediately.