Understanding Chemotherapy

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The term ‘chemotherapy’ is frequently used to describe treatments for cancer. However, not all cancer medications function in a similar way. Traditional or standard chemotherapy uses cytotoxic drugs to kill the tumour cells. This article explains the goals, uses, benefits, side effects, and more of chemotherapy.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a type of treatment that is designed to kill the body’s rapidly proliferating cells. Since cancer cells grow and divide more quickly than other cells, this treatment modality is typically utilised to treat cancer.

In cancer chemotherapy, patients are given certain medicines that specifically kill cancer cell, with less damage to the normal cells of the body.

Combining chemotherapy with other treatments like surgery, radiation, or hormone therapy is standard practice. Combination therapy’s application is dependent on:

  • The kind of cancer you have and its extent of spread
  • Your general health
  • Any prior cancer therapies
  • The location of the cancer cells

It’s a systemic treatment, which means it has an impact on the entire body.

What are the objectives of chemotherapy?

The aim of chemotherapy varies depending on your cancer type and the extent of its spread.
It can be administered alone or as a part of another treatment strategy. Chemotherapy is used as:

  • Primary treatment method: Chemotherapy can be used to eradicate cancer by preventing its recurrence completely and this is referred to as curative chemotherapy
  • Before additional treatments: Before undergoing surgery or radiation therapy, tumours can be reduced using chemotherapy (called neoadjuvant chemotherapy)
  • After-treatment methods: Chemotherapy can be used to eradicate any leftover cancer cells (adjuvant chemotherapy)
  • To slow the progression and reduce the symptoms of cancer: Chemotherapy helps to shrink the size of tumours, and prevent their growth and spread. This eventually leads to the extension of the survival period, relieving of cancer symptoms and improving the patient’s quality of life (called palliative chemotherapy).

Where is chemotherapy administered?

  • Depending on the medication, chemotherapy might be administered at a hospital or taken at home
  • To undergo chemotherapy, your medical team may require you to visit the clinic, physician’s office, or hospital on a frequently. This might be thought of as outpatient therapy
  • Some chemotherapy treatments can be taken at home. Discuss the secure handling, storage, and disposal of your medications with your doctor

How is chemotherapy delivered?

Chemotherapy medications can be administered in a variety of methods, such as:

  • Chemotherapy infusions: Most frequently, chemotherapy is administered through a vein infusion (intravenously).
  • Chemotherapy pills or capsules
  • Chemotherapy injections which are injected with a syringe
  • Chemotherapy creams are used to treat some forms of skin cancer

Drugs used in chemotherapy can be administered directly to a body part which includes:

  • Intraperitoneal chemotherapy drugs are given directly to the abdomen
  • Intrapleural chemotherapy for the chest cavity
  • Intrathecal chemotherapy for the central nervous system
  • Intravesical chemotherapy can be given through the urethra into the bladder
Chemotherapy, Delivery, and Side Effects

What types of chemotherapy treatments are available?

More than 100 different medicines are used in chemotherapy. Although all chemotherapy medications cause cell death, they also target certain cell types at various points in the cell cycle. Combining medications that harm the cancer cell in several ways can improve the efficacy of this treatment.

The primary forms of chemotherapy are listed below:

  • Alkylating substances work by damaging the DNA of the cell
  • Antimetabolites interfere with both the RNA and DNA of the cell
  • Antibiotics for tumours work by changing the DNA in the tumour cell
  • Topoisomerase inhibitors obstruct topoisomerase enzymes. These enzymes aid in separating DNA strands so that they can be duplicated
  • Mitotic inhibitors stop cells from dividing
  • Plant alkaloids block the ability of the cells to divide

What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

The following are the common adverse effects of chemotherapeutic drugs:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Hair fall
  • Reduced appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Oral sores
  • Pain
  • Constipation
  • Bruising
  • Bleeding

What are the advantages of chemotherapy?

Despite its possible side effects, chemotherapy has been a successful, consistent cancer treatment for decades. It can lessen your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Additionally, chemotherapy can improve the efficacy of other treatments like surgery or radiation therapy.

How should I prepare for chemotherapy?

  • To learn how to prepare for chemotherapy, consult your doctor or the chemotherapy nurses
  • It is recommended to have certain tests conducted on your heart, kidneys, and liver to ensure that your body is prepared to withstand the treatment
  • Your doctor might advise having your teeth examined by a dentist as well since dental problems can lead to serious infections such as endocarditis. Chemotherapy can affect your immune system and impair your body’s capacity to fight infections
  • Ask your doctor what side effects you may experience during and after your treatment. For instance, if your chemotherapy treatment can affect your fertility, you might want to consider storing sperm or eggs for the future. Similarly, if your treatment can induce hair loss, you can plan to minimise this by using special shampoos or cold caps
  • Support from your family and friends is important. Make sure you have assistance at work and home to make your life easier.

How long will my chemotherapy session be?

  • Your treatment length will be determined by the type of chemotherapy you receive
  • A treatment session may last a few minutes or several hours. Some patients require an ongoing infusion for several days
  • With continuous infusions, you can begin at the hospital or infusion facility and continue at home
  • Most patients require several cycles of treatment. Depending on the type of chemotherapy, a single cycle may last for several days or weeks which is followed by a period without chemotherapy so that your body will have time to heal from the treatment
  • Treatments might be given on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis

Is chemotherapy painful?

  • Most people don’t feel any pain while receiving treatment, especially if they’re taking tablets or using a topical cream or ointment
  • During the injection, you may feel an unpleasant sting or prick
  • Once the medication has entered your body, you can experience a mild burning sensation that fades with time

How can I care for myself after chemotherapy?

  • Follow your doctor’s instructions and go for follow-ups regularly
  • Eat a well-balanced diet with whole foods, fruits, and vegetables, and minimise the intake of processed and sugary foods
  • Get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night
  • Do not consume alcohol or tobacco
  • Exercise moderately and keep yourself physically active
  • Practice destressing techniques like meditation and yoga
  • It can also be helpful to speak with others who have undergone chemotherapy, as well as reaching out to family and friends for support
Dr. Keertana
WRITTEN BY

Dr. Keertana

PharmD
A medical writer with a Doctorate in Pharmacy, she writes vividly about medicine and science. Read her contributions and writings about various healthcare topics.

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