The commonly heard term chemotherapy is a treatment which uses powerful chemicals for killing the rapidly growing cells in the body. The therapy is mostly used to treat the patients who suffer from cancer. The bodies of people suffering from cancer have a very rapidly growing rate of cells inside. Their cells grow much more quickly than the other most cells in the body. Since those cells are abnormal and damaged in nature however, they are cancerous which is why they need to be killed through the process of chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is a way to kill several types of cancer and is usually effective in fighting cancer. The treatment however comes with a wide number of side effects. Some of these side effects may be mild and could be treated. Others on the hand are harsher and may cause complications which could even be serious and difficult to treat.
Chemotherapy sounds dangerous and fills many people with dread . Knowing about the process and understanding how it works, will calm them down. Also by knowing about the after effects and what is there to expect after the treatment is done, they will be better able to prepare themselves for afterwards.
Why is Chemotherapy given?
As has been mentioned above, chemotherapy is given to patients who are suffering from cancer. It is a way to kill cancer cells in these patients so they can be treated and cured. There are plenty of settings under which chemotherapy is used in patients suffering from cancer :
- There are other ways and therapies that could be used to treat cancer however some of those can’t be treated with other treatments. Where that is the case, chemotherapy is the only primary and sole option for treating the patient with cancer
- A cancer patient may be required to take many therapies in order to be fully treated. In such complicated cases, chemotherapy is usually done after other treatments have also been tried on the patient. If the cancer patient was treated surgically for instance, it is still possible for the cancer cells to reside in his body where they are hidden. In that situation therefore to kill these hidden cells, chemotherapy can be used. Doctors call this as the adjuvant therapy as well.
- Like chemotherapy can be used after other treatments, it can also be used in patients prior to other treatments as well. This, contrasted to the situation mentioned above is known as neoadjuvant therapy by the doctors. This is done prior to other treatments which would then become possible to be used on the patient. Such treatments include radiation and surgery to shrink the size of a tumor in the patient’s body.
- Chemotherapy may make it possible to relieve the symptoms and signs of cancer in the patient by killing some of the cancer cells in the patient. This is known as the palliative therapy.
Apart from the situations above in which chemotherapy is used cancerous conditions, chemotherapy can also be used for conditions other than cancer. There are some drugs of chemotherapy which have proved to be very useful in treating other conditions as well. These other conditions include:
- Bone marrow diseases: these are simply those diseases which affect the bone marrow and blood cells. This condition may be treated with a bone marrow transplant. Chemotherapy is therefore used often in order to prepare the patient for a bone marrow stem cell transplant.
- Immune system disorders: there may be certain conditions and diseases in which the immune system of the patient may be over active. Such diseases include lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. In such conditions the patient is given lower doses of the drugs which are used for chemotherapy in order to treat him. Which drug should be given and in what form would be recommended by the patient’s doctor.
How is Chemotherapy given?
Some of the drugs for chemotherapy are given through a tube which is connected to the patient’s body through a vein . Other than this one method, there are some other ways of giving the patient the drugs necessary for chemotherapy. The other methods include:
- an injection by which the drug is injected in the patient’s body through his mouth. The drug can be injected in forms of liquid or pill.
- there are certain creams available that the patient can rub on their skin to get the chemicals pass through and get inside the body.
Different types of patients have different types of cases. The type of chemotherapy for patients depends on the specifications of their cases. A patient can’t just choose the form in which drugs will be given to them. After analyzing their case properly, considering all the different factors, the patient’s doctor will recommend them for the type of therapy they should use. Some of the patients may not even need to go to the hospital or a clinic for chemotherapy. If their case is not as complicated, they could be allowed to take their medicines at home.
The circumstances which make the environment suitable for a patients chemotherapy depends on several different factors. These factors include the medicines to be given to the patient, the type of cancer that the patient is suffering from and the overall health of the patient. The question about how often the therapy will be given to the patient also depends on the situation of the particular patients who are in consideration. Some patients may be given the therapy every day while some may be given every week. Some patients who don’t require as much medicines are even given the therapy just once in a month. Chemotherapy is given with certain and specified intervals. The period of therapy along with an interval is called a cycle of chemotherapy. The number and frequency of a cycle of chemotherapy a patient requires depends on the type of cancer that he is suffering from and what stage of cancer he is in.
Side effects of Chemotherapy
Even though chemotherapy is an effective way to treat cancer, there are several side effects of this treatment on the patient that they experience after treatment.
The drugs for chemotherapy are powerful enough to kill the fast growing cancer cells but during the process, the effect of the chemicals can even cause absolutely perfectly healthy cells in the body to get damaged .
There are several types of drugs that can be used for chemotherapy. These drugs also have the potential of having various different side effects. Which side effects would affect a patient depends on the treatment and the person’s overall health.
There are many other factors which have a role in the side effects. These factors include ongoing treatments, age, lifestyle and health issues that were encountered previously. Some patients may be more severely affected with the side effects of chemotherapy than the others who are not as much affected. Most of the side effects of therapy will tend to clear up shortly after the treatment has been finished; some of them will stay for a longer time after the therapy has ended. In the worst case scenario, some of the side effects of chemotherapy may never go away from a patient and may always continue to affect their health.
The most common side effects of chemotherapy occur in the digestive track, hair follicles, bone marrow, mouth and reproductive system of the patient affected. But these are not the only areas that could be affected. Cells in any part of the patient’s body may get damaged due to chemotherapy and thus affect it.
Circulatory and immune system
Blood is produced in the bone marrow whose cells could be harmed due to the drugs used in the therapy. This is why routine blood count and monitoring is an important part of the chemotherapy treatment. Lack of blood can cause various problems to the patient since red blood cells function in carrying oxygen to tissues in the human body. This can lead to the patient suffering from Anemia which occurs when the body fails to produce a sufficient amount of red blood cells. Anemia can cause pale skin, light headedness and extreme fatigue.
Chemotherapy can also end up causing neutropenia which is a condition that is caused due to lower levels of white blood cells in the body. The white blood cells play a crucial role in the patient’s immune system. It helps the person to fight off several kinds of infections and saves them from illness. Chemotherapy can cause the immune systems of patients to get very weak which exposes them to greater risk of being ill. These patients must be required to take precautions so they can avoid the greater risks by being exposes to viruses, bacteria and other kind of germs.
Some of the drugs used in chemotherapy might also weaken the muscle of the patient’s heart which causes arrhythmia. The rhythm of the heart is disturbed and it’s ability to pump blood is affected.
Nervous and muscular systems
Chemotherapy can also affect the nervous system of the patient’s body. It may cause problems with their memory. Their ability to think clearly and concentrate for long may also be affected. This may remain for a days in the patient or stay with them even for years.
This can lead the patient to get stressed and cause anxiety. Chemo drugs may be cause pain, numbness, tingling in hands and weakness. The muscles of the patient may begin to feel shaky and ache. Chemotherapy also affects the motor skills of the patient. Their balance and coordination may be greatly affected.
Digestive tracts are commonly affected due to chemotherapy. The treatment may cause mouth sores, dry mouth. Difficulty in chewing or swallowing food is also possible for the patient. The mouth sores may bleed and lead to further infections. The patients sometimes complain of a constant unpleasant taste in their tongues. The treatment may also cause nausea, vomiting, loose stools and diarrhea. Some people may experience hard stools, constipation, bloating and gas. The patient may end up losing their appetite and lose a lot of weight. This causes them to feel generally weak.
This is the system of hair, skin and nails. Chemotherapy may cause the patient to lose their hair of the head, eyebrows, lashes and body. This is experienced after the first treatment but is temporary as new hair begins to grow after final treatment has been done. Some patients may complain of skin irritation, dryness, itchiness and rashes. Finger nails and toe nails of the patient may end up becoming brown and yellow in color. They also may become weak and break easily. They may even get separated from the nail bed.
Sexual and reproductive system
Hormones could be affected because of chemotherapy. For women, hit flashes, irregular periods and permanent infertility is also possible. Their vaginal tissues may get too dry and intercourse could become very difficult and painful for them. In men, chemo therapy can cause permanent infertility and harm sperm. Patients of both genders may lose their sex drive due to fluctuating hormones.
This is the system of kidneys and bladder which could be affected due to chemo therapy. Kidney cells may become damaged and lead to decreased urination along with swelling of the hands and feet of the patient. Patient might feel burning while passing out urine,
Bone loss may occur due to loss in calcium levels. Patients might develop the case osteoporosis which increases the risks of bone fractures. Common areas of the body that suffer are the spine, hips, pelvis and wrists.
Psychological and emotional effects
Fighting cancer and going through chemotherapy isn’t just a physical pain but causes extreme stress to the patient as well. They become concerned about their responsibilities which are being compromised due to their disease and it is absolutely overwhelming for them. constant support of family and friends along with professional counseling is highly recommended for patients going through chemotherapy.