What Is Chemotherapy and How Does It Work?
Chemotherapy is one of the most widely used treatment methods for curing cancer. It can be used as the only treatment or is sometimes combined with other treatment methods, such as radiotherapy or surgery with the aim of improving the quality of the treatment.
Chemotherapy uses drugs (chemo drugs) to fight cancer cells. During treatment a single type of drug can be used or a combination of various drugs, depending on the type of cancer you have or the stage of the cancer.
Cancer cells are body cells that are actively and rapidly dividing abnormally. The chemo drugs work by destroying the rapidly dividing cancer cells and therefore reduce the growth of the tumor.
How Does Chemotherapy Cause Risks To Your Health?
As said earlier, chemotherapy drugs attack rapidly multiplying cells. Unfortunately the drugs not only attack the cancer cells but they also attack healthy cells that divide rapidly too. This results in very serious side effects of chemotherapy, thus making the treatment risky.
The side effects of chemotherapy vary across patients and they also differ depending on the combination of drugs being used in the chemotherapy. Some of the risks and health complications that arise from chemotherapy are further explained below.
What Are Risks And Side Effects Of Chemotherapy?
1. Decreased Red Blood Cells, White Blood Cells And Platelets
Chemo drugs have the potential to interfere with the formation of the RBCs and WBCs in the bone marrow and also platelets. They do this by destroying the cells that are located in the bone marrow.
The RBCs carry out the function of transporting oxygen throughout the body. When their formation is compromised it means that they will reduce in number and your body will be deprived of enough oxygen. You will also suffer from anemia and this will be characterized by symptoms such as:
Reduction of white blood cells means that your body’s defense system against opportunistic infections will be compromised. You will therefore find yourself getting infected with diseases and taking a long time to get better.
Platelets help your blood to clot and thus seal an injury, preventing further loss of blood. When their number reduces due to chemotherapy, you will find yourself bleeding more from minor cuts, nose bleeding, and women may also experience heavier menstrual flows.
2. Heart Complications
There are chemotherapy drugs that can weaken the muscles of the heart or interfere with the hearts rhythm of pumping blood. This can result in heart problems such as arrhythmia. Other drugs also raise a person’s chances of developing a heart attack, which can lead to death.
Sometimes patients who are undergoing chemotherapy may experience pain due to the treatment. This may include headaches, stomach aches, or even pain in the muscles. Damage to the nerves by chemotherapy can also result in one experiencing immense pain which can last for a long time.
4. Nausea, Diarrhea, Vomiting And Constipation
Chemotherapy can cause you to pass watery stool sand also have loose bowels. This will bring about diarrhea, and if it is not treated promptly you may start suffering from dehydration. People who undergo chemotherapy also experience sickness in the stomach (nausea) and this makes them vomit. Others may also experience constipation.
5. Complications with Sex and Reproduction.
Fertility can be affected by chemotherapy. This means that it can interfere with a man’s ability to get a woman pregnant and it can also make it more difficult for a woman to get pregnant and carry the pregnancy to term.
The risks are even higher for pregnant women, especially those who have been pregnant for less than three months. This is because the chemotherapy treatment can cause harm to the baby.
Being fatigued after treatment can also make sex less enjoyable and more difficult to have.
Other Complications of Chemotherapy
There are many problems that can result from chemotherapy. Aside from those mentioned above, one can also experience hair loss, difficulties in thinking, concentration and remembering. Others may also have reduced appetites.
Some people may also suffer from long term effects which mostly affect the liver, lungs, heart, and kidneys.
How Can I Avoid The Risks And Side Effects Of Chemotherapy?
a) To avoid reduced counts of important blood cells such as RBCs, WBCs. and platelets, always ensure that you have a blood test regularly so that their levels are monitored.
b) Heart complications can be prevented by getting the state of your heart checked before the chemotherapy sessions start. People with strong hearts will not have such problems. If you have issues with your heart, you can talk with your doctor to see if there are any drugs that do not have such side effects.
c) Pain can be dealt with in several ways. First, prescriptions for drugs that reduce pain can be given. Secondly, pain caused by nerve damage can be treated by blockage of the pain signals from being transmitted to the brain through nerve blocks or treatments to the spine.
d) To avoid feeling nauseated and throwing up, you can have your doctors prescribe medication to prevent that. These meds will have to be taken at certain times before and after the chemo sessions.
e) Diarrhea should be treated as soon as it starts so that it does not cause severe complications due to dehydration. Intake of sufficient water levels and having a balanced diet should keep you safe from constipation.
f) If you are pregnant, ensure that you inform your doctor before the chemo sessions start. Try to also take precautions to avoid pregnancy during the treatment. In case you become pregnant as you are undertaking the treatment, have your doctor informed immediately.
The Bottom Line
Chemotherapy is a very delicate and complicated procedure. Most of the side effects fade and disappear once the treatment is over. To keep safe from most of its side effects always ensure that you discuss with your doctor on the best drugs to use during the treatment.
Also report any side effects that may emerge so that they are treated early. It is best if you get after cancer care and treatment as this may help with the side effects.