How Chemotherapy Works Against Cancer
Chemotherapy or chemo is the most commonly adopted procedure to treat cancer. Cancer is the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells, which causes a person to be severely ill.
The later cancer is detected, the more the chances are for it to prove fatal.
Chemotherapy is a drug therapy that works by killing these cancer cells to either cure the person or to control further growth. Unlike radiation therapy or surgery, which target specific areas, chemotherapy procedure works on the entire body.
However, in the process of killing the cancer cells, chemotherapy often also affects the healthy cells resulting in some undesired side-effects of this treatment.
Why is chemotherapy used?
Depending on the type and stage of cancer, chemotherapy is used to:
- Cure: A cure is when chemo can kill all the cancer cells and stop the disease from coming back. Treatment is always done with curative intent.
- Control: In some cases, chemo treatment is just able to slow the growth and spread of cancer in the body thereby controlling it further.
- Prepare you for other treatments: Chemotherapy is often also used to shrink the size of the tumour so that a subsequent surgery or radiation therapy is possible.
- Ease the symptoms: Also known as palliation, in cases of late-stage cancer, the chemotherapy process can help relieve symptoms associated with the disease like pain and other sicknesses. This helps the person lead a better quality of life.
How is chemotherapy done?
Chemotherapy uses drugs in a decided dose and administered to the affected person in a suitable method. The drugs used in chemo treatment are potent and thus need to be used carefully. The treatment may be given in various ways:
- Intravenously: In this, the chemotherapy drugs are given through a vein, usually with the help of a device such as a catheter, pump, or port. A tube with a needle is inserted into a vein in your arm or into a device in a vein in your chest.
- Orally: Some chemotherapy drugs are taken by mouth in a capsule or pill form.
- Injections: Just like you receive a shot, chemotherapy drugs can also be injected with a needle into the body.
- Topically: Some drugs are also available in a cream or gel form and applied directly to the skin to treat certain types of skin cancer.
Oral and topical treatments are easily performed at home, while others are usually performed in a hospital or a cancer treatment centre.
For greater effectiveness of the cancer treatment, chemotherapy is often used in combination with other treatments like:
- Surgery: In this, the cancerous tissues or organs are surgically removed by the doctor.
- Radiation Therapy: It uses radioactive substances to kill the cancer cells in the specific area of the body.
- Biological Therapy: Biological material like bacteria and antibodies are introduced inside the body to slowly kill the cancer cells.
- Targeted Therapy: In this, specific substances in the cells like proteins or receptors are targeted by the drug, so that healthy cells remain unaffected.
- Immunotherapy: It uses drugs to strengthen or alter the person’s immune system so that it can recognize and attack the ailing cells.
- Hormone Therapy: This therapy works by making the cancer cells either unable to use the hormone they need to multiply themselves or stopping the body from making the hormone.
How often do you receive chemotherapy treatment?
Chemotherapy is a cyclic treatment which is performed in intervals so that normal cells in the body have time to recover from its side-effects. Sometimes doses may be given one day or a certain number of days in a row, followed by the rest period, then after a week or every other day.
Depending on the drug and the treatment response on the individual, its respective cycle is decided.
Preparing for chemotherapy
Before proceeding with the chemotherapy procedure, your healthcare specialist carefully plans the drug(s), their dose, and the treatment schedule. The preparation process takes into consideration the type of cancer, its stage, and what will suit you best.
Your doctor may require you to get some blood tests done to be sure of your underlying health as it can affect the effectiveness and duration of the treatment. If there’s a problem, your doctor decides your treatment accordingly.
Doctors also discuss the first chemo treatment side-effects so that you’re informed and can prepare yourself. For instance, the chemotherapy process often brings infertility as a side-effect, so your doctor might suggest you preserve your sperm or eggs for use in the future.
What to expect during chemotherapy?
The effects after the first chemo treatment greatly vary from person to person. How the body will respond to the treatment will depend on various factors:
- The type of cancer and how advanced it is
- Combination of treatment
- Type of drug(s) used
- Pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or heart disease
Since every person responds to the treatment differently, your oncologist can seldom tell you exactly how you will feel during the chemotherapy procedure.
Is it fine to continue working during chemotherapy?
Usually, it’s perfectly alright to continue working during chemotherapy as long as you can match the treatment schedule along with your health.
Several companies have laws in place for such employees. Depending on the job you do, you can ask for a part-time or a work from home option from your employer on the days you feel a little sick. You can learn about these laws online or a reliable source.
Possible side-effects of chemotherapy
Although a very useful treatment for cancer, chemotherapy isn’t free of probable adverse effects. The healthy cells that are often targeted by chemotherapy drugs along with the cancer cells, sometimes begin to show abnormalities in some individuals. However, in some cases, most side-effects are known to go away once the complete treatment is over.
The common side-effects of aggressive chemotherapy are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss or hair becoming thin and prone to breakage
- Infection due to low white blood cell count
- Anaemia as a result of a low level of red blood cells
- Blood clotting and bleeding problems due to a low level of platelets
Some people may also experience other side-effects like anxiety and mental health problems. It’s important to talk to your doctor from time to time whenever you show any sign as most of them are treatable concerns.
Cancer is a life-threatening condition which not only affects you physically but can also exhaust your emotional capabilities. It’s very natural to be insecure, to have a lot of questions in mind, and to feel sad and depressed. But instead of letting this pull you down, you must consult a reliable healthcare provider who will guide you correctly through this difficult phase of life.
You can also consider talking to a certified counsellor who can help you stay positive and hopeful in all situations. A mindful conversation with your family and loved ones who will stay by your side come what may is a sure way to lift your spirits and get you going.