Many people fear chemotherapy because they have heard about its “uncomfortable side effects”. Thankfully, side-effect management has come a long way over the last few decades. Today, many side effects once associated with chemotherapy can be prevented or controlled. With some types of chemotherapy, you may experience only minimal side effects. And chemotherapy may be your best option for a successful outcome.
What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is the term for any cancer treatment involving the use of chemical agents to stop cancer cells from growing. Chemotherapy can eliminate cancer cells at locations that are great distances from the original cancer. As a result, chemotherapy is considered a systemic treatment.
More than half of all people diagnosed with cancer receive chemotherapy. For millions of people, chemotherapy can treat their cancer effectively, enabling them to enjoy full, productive lives.
A chemotherapy regimen (also known as a treatment plan and schedule) usually includes drugs to fight the cancer plus drugs to help support completion of the cancer treatment. To get the most from chemotherapy, it's important to stick to a schedule of treatment.
How does Chemotherapy Work?
Chemotherapy is designed to target and kill cancer cells. It can be administered through a vein, injected into a body cavity, or delivered orally in the form of a pill, depending on which drug is deemed best for your type of cancer.
Chemotherapy works by destroying cancer cells; unfortunately, it cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and some healthy cells. So chemotherapy eliminates not only the fast-growing cancer cells but also other fast-growing cells in your body, including, hair and blood cells which is why most patients on a chemotherapy regime lose their hair and can feel weak after treatment.
Some cancer cells grow slowly while others grow rapidly. As a result, different types of chemotherapy drugs target the growth patterns of specific types of cancer cells. Each drug has a different way of working and is effective at a specific time in the life cycle of the cell it targets. Your doctor will determine the chemotherapy drug that is right for you.
People may receive chemotherapy one of the following four ways, or a combination of them:
- Intravenous (IV) infusion
- Injection or shot
- Intrathecal and intraventricular injection, which means a shot into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord or brain
Although some chemotherapy requires IV administration, patients can now receive several kinds of chemotherapy at home. Through instruction, you and your family members can learn how to administer chemotherapy in pill form or by injection with small syringes and needles similar to those that people with diabetes use to administer insulin.
In some cases, a nurse will administer the chemotherapy in an outpatient clinic setting. In other cases, it may be necessary to go to the hospital to receive treatment.
Because different drugs damage cancer cells during different times, combining different cancer drugs into a regimen can result in more cancer cells being killed and improve your outcome.
What are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?
Scientists have made a great deal of progress in developing therapies to help prevent and manage the side effects of chemotherapy. Newer supportive care treatments have led to vast improvements in the management of symptoms associated with cancer treatment. Some people don't experience side effects at all, and you are unlikely to experience all the side effects you read about below. Although chemotherapy is designed to treat cancer cells, unfortunately, it often affects parts of your body not directly affected by the cancer itself. This undesired result is referred to as a complication of treatment, or a side effect.
Side effects may be acute (short-term), chronic (long-term), or permanent. Side effects may cause inconvenience, discomfort, and even death.
Additionally, certain side effects may prevent doctors from delivering the prescribed dose of chemotherapy at the specific time and schedule of the treatment plan. In certain cancers, the expected outcome from chemotherapy is based on delivering the full chemotherapy dose on schedule so it is important to understand chemotherapy cycles and schedules.
Side effects from chemotherapy can include
- Mouth sores
- Hair loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blood-related side effects.
- Numbness and tingling
- Forgetfulness and inability to concentrate
- Reproductive and sexual side effects
Some side effects are severe enough that you should contact your physician. Development of any of the following symptoms during your cancer treatment may indicate a serious condition. If you experience any of the following at any time in your cancer treatment, inform your health care professional immediately.
- Fever higher than 100.5°F
- Shaking chills
- Vomiting that continues 48 hours after treatment
- Bleeding or bruising
- Shortness of breath/chest pain (If you have extreme chest pain, call 911.)
- Severe constipation or diarrhea
- Painful or frequent urination
- Blood in the urine or stool
- Extreme fatigue
- Soreness, redness, swelling, pus, or drainage at your catheter site
- Irregular or rapid heartbeat
- Pain in a new place or pain that is not relieved by your pain medication
- Headache that is not relieved by over the counter medications
- Inability to eat and continued weight loss
- Mouth sores
- Nasal congestion, drainage, cough
- Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
One or more of the following symptoms in conjunction with repetitive diarrhea or vomiting (signs of dehydration)
- Dry, cracked lips
- Dry, sticky tongue
- Increased thirst
- Decreased urination
- Increased weakness
- Increased pulse rate
- Dizziness/lightheadedness (especially when rising to a standing position)