Chemotherapy: What it is, what to expect, side effects, and outlook

Chemotherapy is a widely used treatment for cancer. The term chemotherapy refers to the drugs that prevent cancer cells from dividing and growing. It does this by killing the dividing cells.

A wide range of drugs is used to achieve these goals.

The effectiveness depends to some extent on the stage of the cancer being treated.

Adverse effects can be severe, and patients may need to discuss with their physician what to expect. The benefits of chemotherapy usually outweigh the risk of adverse effects.

Fast facts on chemotherapy:

Here are some key points about chemotherapy. More detail is in the main article.

Chemotherapy is used in the treatment of cancer.

It can prevent disease progress or bring about remission by killing the cells as they divide.

There may be serious adverse effects, and patients should discuss these with their physician.

Depending on the individual and the stage of the cancer, chemotherapy can bring eliminate cancer cells or bring about long-term remission of symptoms.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer through the application of cancer-destroying drugs.

As part of the body’s natural process, cells are constantly replaced through a process of dividing and growing.

When cancer occurs, cells reproduce in an uncontrolled manner.

More and more cells are produced, and they start to occupy an increasing amount of space until they occupy the space previously inhabited by useful cells.

Chemotherapy drugs interfere with a cancer cell’s ability to divide and reproduce.

A single drug or a combination of drugs is used.

These can be delivered either directly into the bloodstream, to attack cancer cells throughout the body, or they can be targeted to specific cancer sites.

What does chemotherapy do?

Chemotherapy drugs can:

impair mitosis, or prevent cell division, as in the case of cytotoxic drugs

target the cancer cells’ food source, which consists of the enzymes and hormones they need to grow

trigger the suicide of cancer cells, known medically as apoptosis

stop the growth of new blood vessels that supply a tumor in order to starve it

The effectiveness 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 enhance the cells’ ability to resist treatment and cause metastasis.

Further investigations have led scientists to suggests that the same principle may still be useful.

They say it could be effective in preventing the cancer cells from resisting treatment by targeting the proteins that are deployed by the cancer to increase resistance and drive metastasis.

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Side effects

Chemotherapy often involves severe adverse effects, but recent scientific advances mean that many of these are far more manageable than in the past.

Depending on the type and extent of the treatment and other individual factors, adverse effects can range from mild to severe. Some people will have no adverse effects.

The impact of treatment on a person’s daily life will depend on the extent of the symptoms.

Here are some of the adverse effects that may occur.

1: Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting affect over 70 percent of patients. Anti-emetic drugs may help. These should be taken
even when symptoms have gone, to prevent them from returning.

Ginger or ginger supplements may help increase the effectiveness of anti-emetics.

2: Alopecia, or hair loss

Chemotherapy alopecia
Chemotherapy can lead to hair loss.

Hair may start to fall out or become thin or brittle a few weeks after treatment begins with some types of chemotherapy. It can affect any part of the body.

Hair loss has no physical health consequences, but it may cause distress. A doctor may put the patient in touch with a counselor or offer advice about obtaining a wig or other suitable covering.

Using a cold cap can keep the scalp cool while a dose is being administered, and this may prevent or reduce hair loss.

Patients who need the medication to reach their scalp, however, cannot use a cold cap. This includes patients with leukemia.

Hair normally grows back soon after treatment is finished.

Nails, too, can become flaky and brittle.

The skin may become dry and sore and oversensitive to sunlight.

Patients should stay out of the sun during peak times, use sun blocks, and wear clothes that provide maximum protection.

3: Fatigue

Fatigue is a common side effect. It may be present most of the time or only after certain activities. Patients should get plenty of rest and avoid tasks that are overtiring.

Severe tiredness should be reported to the doctor, as a significant drop in red blood cells could be leading to anemia.

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