Chemotherapy is a kind of treatment that uses drugs to attack cancer cells. It is called a "systemic treatment" since the drug, entering through the blood stream, travels throughout the body and kills cancer cells at their sites. The drugs may rarely beintended to have a local effect, but in most cases, the intention is to destroy cancer cells wherever they may exist in the body.
Chemotherapeutic drugs are chemically designed to target cells that are dividing and growing rapidly. Once they reach the cancer cells, they act to retard their growth, eventually resulting in their destruction.
Chemotherapy may be given at home, in a clinic or in a hospital. The frequency of chemotherapy can be daily, weekly, monthly or an on-off schedule depending on the type of drug, the body's response and the type of cancer. The chemotherapy is decided on the basis of the type of cancer. The dosage is calculated on the basis of the patient's body weight and the drug's toxicity.
At present more than 50 anticancer drugs have been discovered. They are used in several ways:
Immunotherapy or only one drug
Combination chemotherapy or a group of drugs which work together
Combined modality or chemotherapy along with other treatment such as surgery and radiotherapy
The drugs are delivered to the affected cells in the following forms:
Oral (tablet form, by mouth)
Intravenous or Intramuscular (injected by needle into a vein or muscle)
Intrathecal chemotherapy (injected through a needle in the back)
Since chemotherapy also affects normal actively dividing cells such as those in the bone marrow, the gastrointestinal tract, the reproductive system and in the hair follicles, most patients experience some degree of side effects, which may include any or all of the following:
Nausea and vomiting: This is a common side effect of chemotherapy. It can be controlled with anti-sickness drugs (anti-emetics), which your doctor will prescribe.
Fatigue: Chemotherapy affects different people in different ways. Some find they can lead fairly normal lives during treatment, but many find they become tired and have to take things more slowly. Just do as much as you can and be careful not to over-strain. Taking short naps may help.
Hair loss: This is the least harmful side effect, yet can be the hardest to bear.
The use of a cold compress around the scalp when taking chemotherapy helps stop hair loss to some extent. Hair will grow back surprisingly quickly once treatment is over.
Susceptibility to infections: When the drugs act on cancer cells, they also destroy
normal cells including white blood cells, which fight infections. When white blood cells are in short supply, the body's immune system is weakened making you susceptible to infections. Any fever should be reported so that your doctor can prescribe antibiotics.
Decrease in blood cell count: During chemotherapy, you may become anemic. Regular blood tests are done to ensure this does not happen. If necessary, blood transfusions are given.
Mouth sores and ulcers: Some chemotherapy drugs cause sores and ulcers in the mouth. Regular use of a mouthwash is very important. It should be emphasized that side effects depend on the type and number of drugs used, that individuals react very differently, and that all side effects are temporary and disappear once treatment is completed.