Chemotherapy is a very effective treatment for several types of cancers. This therapy employs chemical agents to kill the rapidly growing cancer cells. It is used either alone or in combination with other therapies to enhance their action and to destroy the remaining cancer cells. Before you undergo chemotherapy, you should know certain things related to the treatment in order to be prepared.
Nearly 100 different chemotherapy drugs are available at present which is either used alone or in combinations. They are categorized into specific groups based on their mechanism of action. Most of the drugs interfere with DNA synthesis or its function. Each class of drugs acts at different phases of the cell cycle causing a destruction of the cells. These drugs have different compositions and methods of administration and are used for specific cancers.
Choice of the Chemotherapeutic agents
Your doctor will decide the chemotherapeutic drug based on several factors such as the type of cancer and its stage, history of cancer, your overall health, and the presence of any other conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
Routes of administration of the drug
Chemotherapeutic agents are administered through many routes. The most common methods include:
- Orally in the form of capsules, pills or liquids
- Intravenous injections
- Injections are given in the form of a shot in your arm, hip, thigh, or belly
- Chemotherapy may be given directly into the cavity that surrounds the stomach, intestine, and liver
- Chemotherapy is also available in topical forms such as creams that can be rubbed on the skin
Setting of a Chemotherapy schedule
Chemotherapy is usually given at regular intervals called cycles. Each cycle involves a single dose of either one (monotherapy) or more drugs (combination therapy) followed by several days to weeks of no treatment. This resting phase helps the healthy cells to recover from the side effects of the drugs. Some therapies may involve a certain number of doses for several days followed by no dose period for several days. The number of doses to be given depends on the type and stage of cancer. This may, however, be changed later based on the patient’s response.
It is advisable to not miss even a single dose of chemotherapy. But your doctor may change your therapy schedule based on your response. In such instances, you will be instructed on what to do and when to resume the therapy.
Side effects of Chemotherapy
Like any other treatment, chemotherapy causes certain side effects. The side effects may vary from person to person and with the chemotherapeutic agents used. The side effects are chiefly due to the basic action of these drugs, i.e. the killing of all actively dividing cells. Consequently, the rapidly dividing cells present in the blood, hair, nails and lining of the stomach are affected resulting in the side effects as detailed below.
- Fatigue is the most common side effect due to a decrease in the red blood cells which carry oxygen.
- Nausea and vomiting are possible with most of these drugs, and the severity depends on the dose of the drug.
- Blood disorders such as anemia (a decrease in red blood cells) lead to shortness of breath, dizziness; leukopenia (a decrease in white blood cells) increases your risk for infections and thrombocytopenia (a decrease in platelets) can lead to higher bleeding and bruising than usual.
- Hair loss can occur with some of these drugs. It usually starts after 2-3 weeks of starting the therapy and tends to increase later. This side effect gets reversed on its own after the cessation of the therapy.
Managing the side effects
Your doctor will provide you medications to prevent or treat most of the side effects of chemotherapy. You can also take some measures to reduce the number and severity of side effects.
- To reduce fatigue, alternate rest with activities.
- To overcome nausea, you can start imagining about your favorite things so that these thoughts block the negative sensations. On days when your appetite is bad, take juices or healthy snacks and meals in several nibbles.
- To lessen hair loss, you should choose a mild shampoo, avoid chemical or heat treatments, etc. If hair loss is too severe, you can opt for wigs.
- Infections can be lowered by maintaining proper hygiene.
Working during Chemotherapy
If your work schedule and the type of work you undertake match with the therapy, then you can continue working. Your doctor will advise you on this.
Knowing the details of chemotherapy can help you in being more prepared if you have to undergo the therapy and helps you take more informed decisions. You can also share your knowledge with someone else who was suggested this therapy.