What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a widely used method for treating cancer. It involves the administration of drugs either orally or intravenously to prevent cancer cells from growing and dividing. The administration and effectiveness, both depend on the stage of the disease.
What are the types of Chemotherapy?
There are four types of Chemotherapy drugs:
- Alkylating agents: They work directly on the DNA and kill the cells at different stages of the cell life cycle.
- Antimetabolites: These drugs mimic proteins that the cells need to survive. When the cells consume them, they offer no benefit, and the cells starve.
- Plant alkaloids: These types of drugs block the ability of the cells to grow and divide.
- Antitumor antibiotics: These bind with DNA and stop RNA from synthesizing, so that the cells cannot reproduce. These are different from the antibiotics we use for an infection.
What does Chemotherapy do?
Chemotherapy drugs work in the following ways:
- 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
How is Chemotherapy given?
Depending on the type and stage of cancer, chemotherapy drugs can be given in the following ways:
- Orally: If the patient’s health allows, tablets can be taken orally at home. The exact dose needs to be taken at the exact time. The patient may need to visit the hospital multiple times to see the response of the drug and progress. If the patient forgets to take a dose, they must contact their doctor immediately.
- Intravenous chemotherapy: This may be injected directly into a vein with a needle or delivered through an intravenous infusion.
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The drugs can also be given in the following ways:
- As an injection into a muscle in the arm, thigh, or elsewhere
- Intrathecally, injected into the space between layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord
- As an intraperitoneal (IP) injection, delivered directly into the part of the body where the intestines, stomach, and liver are located
- Intra-arterially (IA), injected into the artery that leads to the cancer
The drug may be given through a drip or pushed through a pump, to ensure a constant rate of delivery. The devices through which the drug is administered are a catheter, a central line, and a portacath.
What are the side-effects of Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy has adverse side-effects, but thanks to advancement in science, most of them are manageable. They are also temporary side-effects and go away with time. Some of them include:
- Nausea and vomiting: This is a side-effect in over 70% of patients. Ginger and certain other home remedies may help reduce these side-effects. Read About Nausea remedies here.
- Hair loss: Hair, skin and nails may become brittle during cancer treatment and hair may start to fall out. Using a cold cap during chemotherapy can reduce the hair fall but in cancers like leukemia, cold caps are not possible. Hair will start to grow back once the treatment is over.
- Hearing impairment: The toxic effects of chemo may leave some patients with temporary or permanent hair loss.
- Fatigue: This is another common side-effect of chemotherapy. It may be present most of the times or only during specific activities. Severe fatigue should be reported to the doctor as it may be a sign of anemia. Read about the remedies here.
- Low WBC count: Neutropenia, or low levels of white blood cells can also occur in patients. The medicines that attack the cancer cells may also attack the healthy cells, thus bringing the immunity down. This makes the person prone to infections.
- Low blood platelet count and bleeding problems: Platelets help the blood to coagulate. A low platelet count can lead to bruises or bleeds, for example, nosebleeds and bleeding gums. The blood flow from a minor cut may be hard to stop. This is a common side-effect in cancer patients during treatment.
- Low RBCs and anemia: Red blood cells carry oxygen to all the tissues in the body. A low level of red blood cells will lead to anemia. Symptoms include tiredness, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations. A person with severe anemia may need an urgent blood transfusion. Your doctor will suggest medicine to tackle this side-effect.
- Mucositis: Mucositis, or inflammation of the mucous membrane, can affect any part of the digestive system, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, the rectum, and the anus. Ulcers may appear in the mouth and around the lips. Consult your doctor and he will provide the correct medicine to deal with it.
- Loss of appetite: Either chemotherapy or cancer itself can affect the body’s metabolism, leading to a loss of appetite and weight loss until cancer goes into remission or until treatment is finished. The severity of this side-effect depends on the type of chemotherapy drug. Eat smaller and frequent meals and increase fluid intake.
- Loss of libido: Loss of libido and disinterest in sex is a common side-effect. It is a temporary symptom and libido usually returns after chemo is stopped. In some cases, it also affects fertility. Cancer patients are also advised to freeze their eggs or sperms because infertility may be a temporary or a permanent side-effect.
- Cognitive problems: Up to 75 percent of patients report problems with attention, thinking, and short-term memory during chemotherapy. For up to 35 percent, this may persist for months or years after treatment. This is also called a chemo brain.
- Bowel problems: Diarrhea can result when damaged cells are suddenly expelled from the body. Constipation is also common, but bowel problems subside once chemo is stopped.
Some people get affected by almost all the side effects of chemotherapy, while others may face only a few. It is important to stay in constant touch with your doctor during the treatment, as they can help deal with the side effects of drugs. Some of these side effects are only temporary, and the patient should feel better as soon as the treatment is completed.
Also Read: Here are 9 types of cancer treatments
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