What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy, also referred to as ‘chemo’ for short, is a widely used treatment for certain types of cancers. The term itself refers to the drugs that prevent cancer cells from dividing and growing. The effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment depends on several factors, including:
• The type of cancer
• The stage of cancer
• The patient’s age and overall health
• Other serious ailments and health problems like heart, liver or kidney diseases
• Types of cancer treatments given in the past
What Does Chemotherapy Do?
The main function of chemotherapy depends on the type and stage of cancer, but generally it is used to:
• Cure cancer – In some cases, chemotherapy treatment can completely destroy cancer cells. A doctor will no longer be able to detect cancer cells in the body. This means the patient is cancer-free with the best outcome being that they never grow back again.
• Control the spread of cancer – Sometimes, chemotherapy is used to prevent cancer cells from spreading to other parts of your body or slow the growth of cancerous tumours.
• Palliation – In severe cases where chemotherapy is unable to cure or control the spread of cancer cells, it will often be considered as a method for easing the symptoms of cancer e.g. shrinking tumours that cause pain or pressure.
How Does Chemotherapy Work?
Chemotherapy works by targeting cancerous cells that grow and divide quickly. Unlike radiation therapy and surgery, which targets specific areas, chemotherapy can work throughout the body. This means that it can also target healthy cells, particularly those of the skin, intestines, hair, and bone marrow. This can result in side effects that are common with this type of treatment, including hair loss, easy bruising, digestive distress, skin sensitivity, infections and swollen hands and feet, among others.
Chemotherapy drugs are strong medicines and dosages must be applied very carefully and precisely – taking too little will not treat cancer while taking too much can cause life-threatening side effects.
Depending on the drugs to be given, there are various ways to determine chemotherapy doses, including a person’s body weight and body surface area. The drugs may be adjusted differently for people who:
• Are young
• Are elderly
• Have poor nutrition
• Are obese
• Are taking other medications
• Have low blood cell counts
• Have liver or kidney diseases
How is the Dose Given?
Patients may need to take chemotherapy treatment orally or intravenously.
Orally – if the patient’s health allows, chemotherapy can be taken orally in the form of tablets, capsules or liquid. In this instance, patients will need to take the correct dosage at home and visit the hospital regularly to check their health and response to the treatment. Patients must follow the dosage exactly as instructed and failure to do so could compromise their health.
Intravenous chemotherapy – This may be injected directly into the vein (or elsewhere) with a needle or via an intravenous infusion.
In some cases, chemotherapy drugs can also be applied topically in the form of a cream or ointment.
What to Expect from Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is an invasive treatment that has benefits but also some severe and adverse side effects. This is because it targets cancerous as well as healthy cells. Despite the challenging side effects of chemotherapy, if given early, chemotherapy can completely destroy cancer cells, giving patients a second chance at a healthy life. It is therefore very important that patients know exactly what to expect before starting treatment. Patients are advised to talk to their doctor about the side effects of chemotherapy before treatment begins.
How Long Does it Last?
While this varies from patient to patient, chemotherapy is generally administered over a period of a few weeks or months. This will be specified by the oncologist or cancer specialist. Once the chemotherapy treatment has been confirmed, the doctor will:
• Draw up a schedule that specifies when treatment sessions will occur and for how long
• Advise on the course of treatment, which will vary from patient to patient, depending on the type and stage of cancer
• Include rest periods between treatments to allow the body to recover
• Recommend a psychologist or counsellor to help the patient deal with the physical, emotional and mental challenges of chemotherapy
There may be times when, if the side effects are serious, the chemotherapy plan will have to be adjusted, either by changing the dosage or the schedule. Patients may be given additional supportive medicines to help the body recover quickly. Ultimately, the key is to give the body enough chemotherapy drugs to kill the cancer cells without causing other serious health problems.