Chemotherapy is a common form of cancer treatment, often used as part of a comprehensive treatment package aimed at targeting the disease. It can be highly effective in many different cancer cases, from lung cancer to leukaemia, though whether or not it is administrated, or how much is given, will entirely depend on the individual patient’s diagnosis.
The most common form of chemotherapy is called cytotoxic chemotherapy, and is often delivered as a combination of different drugs. The drugs are quite literally ‘toxic’ to cancer cells, and act a bit like a poison to the harmful cells, in order to reduce, and hopefully eradicate, the cancer from the body.
The administration of chemotherapy can vary, from taking pills to having injections or intravenous injections, the latter usually carried out at hospital. Given by a nurse, using specially prepared solutions, the session involves inserting a needle into a vein, usually on the hand, then allowing the liquid drug to flow into the vein and thereby around the body. It can take as little as an hour to complete. Where a longer session is needed, you may be offered a bed for several hours in the chemo suite, where the drug will be infused over the course of half a day or a day.
Courses of chemotherapy often involve having the treatment sessions once every three weeks or so over the course of several months. For some people, the courses are quite short, but for others, they are administered on more of an ongoing basis, particularly in the case of some secondary cancers. Common cancers to be treated with chemotherapy include breast, prostate, lung, cervical, leukaemia, skin cancer, amongst many others.
As chemotherapy drugs work on all of the cells in the body, not just the cancerous ones, unfortunately it means that the healthy cells are adversely affected for the duration of the course, though they usually recover fully once the course has ended. This can lead to unpleasant side effects particularly in the first few days after each session. Though some people don’t experience any side effects, others can have a difficult time during chemotherapy, and need to seek out as much help and support as they feel they need.
Common side effects include fatigue, weakness, nausea and being sick. The nausea and sickness are usually particularly strong directly after taking the chemotherapy drug, then die down after a few days. Modern anti-sickness pills are also highly effective, and can combat the problem quickly.
Patients can also develop sensitive skin, constipation or diarrhoea, and mouth ulcers. For all of these, your doctor will be able to advise on remedies available over the counter or from your kitchen cupboard. Hair loss is also a classic side effect, suffered by many, though not all, cancer patients. In some cases, the use of a ‘cool cap’ during the chemotherapy session can help to retain some or all of the hair.
Written by Kat Kraetzer, an experienced blogger working in the health-care industry for many years