Cancer is a debilitating and life-altering diagnosis, and understanding the treatments available can seem overwhelming. Chemotherapy is one of the most common treatments for cancer, but it’s often misunderstood. This comprehensive guide aims to provide an overview of chemotherapy, including how it works, how it’s administered, and what side effects it can cause. With this guide, cancer patients and their caregivers can make more informed decisions about their care and feel more confident and empowered in their fight against the disease.
How chemotherapy works
Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. To do this, it uses various mechanisms to damage and kill cancer cells, including stopping the cells from dividing, damaging the DNA inside the cells, and causing the cells to die. The drugs used in chemotherapy target all rapidly dividing cells, including cancer cells and cells in the digestive tract and hair follicles, which also divide frequently. That’s why chemotherapy can cause a wide range of side effects.
Types of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy drugs can be categorized by their mechanism of action, type of cancer they’re used to treat, and the potential severity of the side effects they cause. Cytotoxic chemotherapy – This type of chemotherapy uses drugs that try to kill rapidly dividing cells. Alkylating agents – These drugs work by changing the structure of DNA inside cells. They’re used to treat cancers that start in blood cells and certain types of solid tumors. Platinum-based drugs – These drugs are used to treat certain types of cancers, including ovarian, breast, lung, and bladder cancers. Antimetabolites – These drugs stop cancer cells from making DNA. They’re often used to treat cancers of the blood or digestive tract. Immunotherapy – This type of chemotherapy uses drugs that boost your immune system to fight cancer cells. It’s often combined with other chemotherapy drugs. This type of chemotherapy is used to treat certain cancers, including some types of breast cancer and melanoma.
Administration of chemotherapy
All chemotherapy drugs can be administered by injection or as an oral medication. Intravenous (IV) chemotherapy – This is the most common type of chemotherapy. The drugs are administered intravenously (IV) through a needle or port that’s inserted into a vein. Intra-arterial chemotherapy – This is an uncommon and rarely used type of chemotherapy that delivers the drugs directly to an area of the body with high blood flow, such as the leg. Intra-peritoneal chemotherapy – This rare and experimental type of chemotherapy delivers the drugs directly into the abdominal cavity. Oral chemotherapy – This is when the drugs are given as a pill or other oral dosage form.
Potential risks and side effects of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy drugs often cause side effects because they’re strong and designed to kill rapidly dividing cells, including hair follicles and the cells lining the digestive tract. Other side effects occur because the drugs travel throughout the body and can damage healthy cells. Chemotherapy drugs can also damage nerves and lead to nerve damage, causing problems with muscle strength and sensation in hands, arms, legs, and feet. Nausea and vomiting – These are the most common side effects of chemotherapy. To help prevent them, patients can take anti-nausea medication before chemotherapy starts. If a patient starts to feel nauseous during chemotherapy, they can take anti-nausea medication as needed. Anemia – This is a loss of red blood cells that can make you feel tired and short of breath. Patients can prevent anemia by taking iron supplements. Alterations in taste – Chemotherapy can damage the taste buds, causing patients to lose their sense of taste. Hair loss – This can occur throughout the body, including the eyelashes and eyebrows. Patients can reduce hair loss by shaving their heads and wearing hats. Diarrhea – This can be caused by oral chemo drugs that damage the cells lining the digestive tract. Patients can reduce diarrhea by taking steps to stay hydrated and eating bland foods. Nerve damage – This can cause tingling, pain, and muscle weakness. It’s more common in people receiving certain types of chemotherapy. Patients can take steps to prevent nerve damage.
Preparing for chemotherapy
Before beginning chemotherapy, patients should consult with their doctors about how to prepare for the treatment and potential side effects. Patients should also consider discussing the following: Discussing dosage – The doctor might recommend a reduced dosage of chemotherapy to avoid severe side effects. Patients should discuss this with their doctors. Reducing side effects – Patients can take steps to reduce nausea and diarrhea, such as eating bland foods and staying hydrated. Patients can also shave their heads to avoid hair loss. Staying organized – Patients should prepare for treatment by keeping track of their appointments and medications, setting reminders, and asking for help with any needed support.
Managing side effects of chemotherapy
After talking with a doctor about the potential side effects of chemotherapy, patients can take steps to reduce or manage them. Nausea and vomiting – Patients can take anti-nausea medication before chemotherapy starts or when they start to feel nauseous. If the nausea persists, patients can eat small meals throughout the day, eat bland foods, and stay hydrated. Anemia – Patients can take iron supplements to prevent anemia. Alterations in taste – Patients can talk with their doctors about taking medications that can help with this side effect. Hair loss – Patients can take steps to minimize hair loss, including shaving their heads and wearing hats. Diarrhea – Patients can take anti-diarrhea medications and eat bland foods. They can also increase their water intake to stay hydrated. Nerve damage – Patients can take steps to prevent nerve damage, including keeping their hands and feet warm and wearing gloves when possible.
Alternatives to chemotherapy
Patients should discuss the pros and cons of chemotherapy with their doctors to determine whether it’s the best option for them. For patients who decide chemotherapy isn’t the right course of treatment, there are other options available. Radiation therapy – This is when a radiation oncologist administers high-dose, focused radiation to kill cancer cells. Targeted therapy – This is when a patient’s doctor creates a personalized treatment plan based on the patient’s genetics. Some targeted therapies are administered as a pill, while others are an injection. Immunotherapy – This is when doctors use drugs to boost a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. This can be an alternative to chemotherapy or may be used in combination with chemotherapy or surgery.
Resources for cancer patients and caregivers
Chemotherapy is an emotional and stressful experience, and patients can benefit from having a support system. There are many ways to find support, including finding a support group and connecting with other patients online. Cancer care organizations can also provide education and resources for patients and caregivers.