For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when talking about cancer treatment is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy has been portrayed in television shows and movies for all to see and explained in pamphlets for cancer patients. The majority of people associate chemotherapy with things such as intravenous fluids and loss of hair. But how well do we really know this treatment option?
What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy makes use of drugs (or chemicals) to treat cancer. Despite popular belief, chemotherapy is entirely different from radiation therapy. The medications patients use during chemotherapy are typically administered through a venous cannula or by injection. They can be given through different routes: via skin, muscle, IV fluids, or drinking. There are some cases that require multiple delivery methods for the same patient. A combination of drugs is common for chemotherapy patients, as their physicians attempt to address several concerns at the same time.
The drugs in the chemotherapy are injected into a vein, into a muscle, under the skin or sometimes taken orally by mouth. The drugs injected into the body travel through the blood stream and reach the cancer cells spread throughout the body. Thus chemo is a useful treatment for the cancers like leukemia that are known to spread throughout the body. Most chemo is not able to reach the brain and spinal chord area well, so in order to treat that area the drugs of the chemotherapy are needed to be injected into the cerebrospinal fluid to kill the cancer cells in that area. This process of killing the cancer cells in the brain and spinal cord area is known as intrathecal chemo. Chemo is always given in a cycle, followed by a period of rest so the body of the patient has ample time to recover. There are potential side effects also of this treatment, therefore if someone has a poor health then chemo is not recommended to that person, as his/her body will not be able to handle the side effects.
How Does Chemotherapy Work?
Unlike other options to treat cancer such as radiation and surgery, chemotherapy cannot address the affected area locally. The chemicals used in this form of treatment merely attack all rapidly growing cells, even those that are healthy. This is what causes chemo patients to experience hair loss or alopecia. The involvement of compound body systems may cause patients feelings of fatigue, nausea and vomiting as well.
In cases of leukemia (cancer of the blood), cytotoxic drugs are used that are intended to hinder the growth and multiplication rate of affected blood cells. By damaging these cells, patients are at an increased risk for experiencing complications. This is why it is important for leukemia patients with any type of the disease to start chemotherapy as soon as possible.
Disadvantages of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is not inexpensive. It is also a lengthy process that needs to be repeated several times on a regular basis to totally eliminate cancer.
Phases of Chemotherapy
Leukemia patients who use chemotherapy undergo different stages, starting with the first called induction therapy. Coming from the root word induce, this period aims to jump-start the treatment regimen. Drugs are administered for three different purposes: to destroy malignant cells, normalize a number of healthy cells, and promote remission ( the time when no signs and symptoms are evident). This stage is repeated several times per year, usually at an interval of 4-6 months depending on the severity of symptoms and strength of the patient's body.
After effective induction therapy, patients undergo another phase to exterminate any malignant cells that the beginning phase may have missed. This stage is called consolidation therapy or post-remission therapy. Anyone who began a first phase of chemotherapy should continue to this step, or they risk the recurrence of cancer. High doses of drugs such as cytarabine are given up to four times in different intervals. This is the stage where administration of stem cells may take place if the patient consented to the procedure. In some cases, additional sessions of consolidation therapy will be prescribed to target leukemia cells that have infiltrated a patient's nervous system.
Lower doses of chemotherapy medications are given to complete maintenance therapy, the final stage for leukemia patients. Maintenance therapy can be given once a month along with the use of regular oral medications to fight leukemia. Unlike the shorter first two stages, this stage can last for 1-3 years, or until the patient shows signs of complete health.
Side effects of Chemotherapy
The drugs in the chemotherapy kill or attack the cells that are dividing quickly, this is how they work against the cancer cells. But, other fast growing cells of the body like that of hair, the lining of the mouth and intestines, bone marrow (where the new blood cells are made) are also affected by this treatment thus, in turn, resulting in several side effects for the patient.
The side effects of the chemotherapy depend on the type and dosage of the drugs given to the patient. They also depend on the time period for which they are taken. Some of the common side effects are:-
- Hair loss
- Mouth sores
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased risk of sickness this happens due the low white blood cells count
- Easy bruising or bleeding this happens due to low blood platelet count
What to Expect
Undergoing chemotherapy can be difficult in many ways. It is physical, emotionally, mentally, and financially draining not only for the patient receiving treatment but for their loved ones as well. Patients that undergo chemotherapy do need a reliable support system. It is important for patients to avoid other stressful activities during chemotherapy and they may need help with daily responsibilities. Patients may display mixed feelings of anger, frustration, and depression. Relaxation techniques are often encouraged and may help those undergoing chemotherapy cope with their situation. Examples of these techniques are deep breathing, guided meditation, and listening to soothing music. All of these activities promote sleep and rest, which are essential to help keep a patients' strength up.