Chemotherapy is an aggressive form of chemical drug therapy meant to destroy rapidly growing cells in the body. It is usually used for cancer, as cancer cells grow and divide faster than other cells. Chemotherapy is often used in combination with other therapies, such as surgery, radiation, or hormone therapy. However, this depends on the stage and type of cancer, your overall health, previous cancer treatments, location of cancer cells, and your personal treatment preferences. While chemotherapy has been proven to attack cancer cells, it can cause serious side effects that can severely impact your quality of life.
You should weigh these side effects against the risk of not getting treatment when deciding if chemotherapy is right for you. Chemotherapy is used to prepare you for other treatments. It could be used before surgically or to prepare you for radiation therapy.
It is considered a systemic treatment, which means it affects the entire body.
The era of cancer chemotherapy began in the 1940s with the first use of nitrogen mustard gas that was used to such deadly effect in the trenches of Belgium and France. The gas was highly toxic, burning the skin, eyes and lungs of soldiers who inhaled it. Cancer drug development has exploded since then into a multibillion-dollar industry.Not long after the discovery of nitrogen mustard, Sidney Farber of Boston demonstrated that aminopterin, a compound related to the vitamin folic acid, produced remissions in children with acute leukemia. Aminopterin blocked a critical chemical reaction needed for DNA replication. That drug was the predecessor of methotrexate, a cancer treatment drug used commonly today. Since then, other researchers discovered drugs that block different functions in cell growth and replication. The era of chemotherapy had begun.
Chemotherapy is designed to kill cells that divide quickly. While cancer cells are these kinds of cells, other cells in your body divide quickly as well. Cells in the blood, hair, skin, and lining of your intestinal tract can be adversely affected.
Side effects of chemotherapy include:
These could include damage to the:
Your doctor can help you better manage these side effects with medications, lifestyle tips, and more.
Most side effects of chemotherapy subside when treatment is over. There is, however, the risk of long-lasting effects that may develop even years after the treatment, depending on the type of chemotherapy used.
As much as is possible, you need to know what to expect and be comfortable that the decision you’ve made is the best one for you. People differ about how involved they want to be in the decision-making process. But knowing as much as you can about what lies ahead can, at the very least, help reduce your stress level. It’s not unusual for patients to wait a few weeks after learning they have cancer to have chemotherapy, although this depends on the type of cancer and other factors. In most cases, you will have time to:
- Learn more about the cancer
- Talk to others who have had cancer
- Explore your treatment options
- Organize your thoughts
- Find the right health care team for you
Informed consent is one of the most important parts of getting ready for chemotherapy. It’s a process during which you are told about all aspects of the chemotherapy before you give your doctor written permission to do it. The details of the informed consent form may vary from state to state, but it usually says that your doctor has explained these things:
- Your condition or diagnosis and why chemotherapy is an option
- The goal of the chemotherapy
- How the chemotherapy is to be done
- How it may benefit you
- What the risks are
- What side effects to expect
- What other treatment options you have
Before you begin therapy, you will undergo a series of tests to help determine if you’re healthy enough for chemotherapy. This will include examinations of your heart and blood tests to determine the health of your liver. These tests can also help guide your doctor in deciding which types of chemotherapy to use in your treatment. Your doctor will install a port if you’re getting chemotherapy through an IV.
A port is a device that is implanted in your body, typically in your chest near your shoulder. This allows for easier access into your veins and is less painful. During each treatment, the IV will be inserted into your port. After the initial installation, your treatments—at least the initial injection—will be painless.
Your doctor may also recommend that you visit your dentist before beginning treatment. As chemotherapy affects your body’s ability to heal, any infection in your gums or teeth could spread throughout your body.
Determining the course of your treatment will be between you and your doctor with all variables considered. Chemotherapy is typically delivered in pill form or directly into your veins by injection or IV tubing. However, there are other ways it can be delivered. Your chemotherapy schedule, as in how often you receive treatment, will be customized for you. It can be changed if your body doesn’t handle the treatment well, or increased or decreased depending on how well the cancer cells react to treatments.
Chemotherapy delivery options include:
Where you receive treatment depends on your chosen delivery method. For instance, if you use creams or pills, you can give yourself treatments at home. Other procedures are usually performed at a hospital or a specialized facility.