Chemotherapy: An Overview
Chemotherapy uses medication as a treatment for cancer. Chemotherapy is used to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. If a cure is not possible, chemotherapy may be used to relieve the symptoms of cancer. Chemotherapy may be used alone or with surgery, radiation therapy, or both.
How Chemotherapy Works
Chemotherapy medications target and destroy cells that quickly divide. Cancer cells quickly divide and are unable to repair themselves or replicate after exposure to chemotherapy. However, healthy cells in the digestive tract, hair, and blood also divide quickly and are affected by chemotherapy. This results in side effects such as nausea or diarrhea, hair loss, and anemia.
Types of Chemotherapy Delivery Methods
The type of chemotherapy that you receive depends on the type and extent of your cancer. One or a combination of chemotherapy medications may be used. Chemotherapy may be received by mouth, intravenously, intramuscularly, or directly into the spinal fluid. Chemotherapy may be swallowed in pill, capsule, or liquid forms.
Intravenous (IV) chemotherapy is delivered through a small needle that is inserted in a vein. A more permanent catheter may be used for repeated treatments to avoid needle sticks. A central venous catheter is surgically inserted into a large vein in the chest. A port remains exposed and it is used to administer chemotherapy and fluids or withdraw blood for tests. An implanted port is surgically placed beneath the skin’s surface. A needle is inserted through the skin into the port to administer chemotherapy and fluids or withdraw blood.
Chemotherapy may be injected into a muscle. An intrathecal or spinal tap is used to inject chemotherapy directly into the spinal fluid. Intrathecal injection is used for cancers that tend to spread to the central nervous system.
Chemotherapy is usually delivered on an outpatient basis. You may receive treatments in your doctor’s office, a clinic, or at home, depending on what your doctor prescribes. Chemotherapy is delivered in cycles over time to allow your body time to respond, rest, and build healthy cells. Dosage schedules vary and may consist of a few weeks or a year or more.
Chemotherapy does affect some healthy cells as well as cancerous cells. Cells in the bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, and hair follicles may be damaged or destroyed, resulting in side effects. Your doctor will let you know what possible side effects to expect and may prescribe medication or recommend relaxation techniques to help you through your treatment process.
Taking anti-nausea medications before, during, or after your treatments may prevent nausea and vomiting. It may help to eat frequent small meals and eat and drink slowly. You should avoid fried or fatty foods.
Hair loss anywhere on the body is a common side effect of chemotherapy. Your hair should grow back after your treatments are completed. It is helpful to use mild shampoo to clean your scalp and protect your head from sunburn with a sunblock or hat. Some insurance companies cover the expense of a wig that is prescribed by a doctor. Additionally, some cancer treatment centers have image specialists to help you learn to apply make-up and take care of your skin and hair while receiving cancer treatments.
Chemotherapy can affect the cells in the bone marrow and its ability to make red blood cells. A low red blood cell count can cause anemia. Symptoms of anemia include feeling dizzy, chills, fatigue, or shortness of breath. It may be helpful to take several rest breaks during the day and eat a well-balanced diet. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help your bone marrow produce cells. In some cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary to replenish red blood cells.
Chemotherapy can affect the bone marrow’s ability to produce white blood cells, resulting in an increased risk for infections. Signs of an infection include fever, chills, sores that do not heal, coughing, shortness of breath, sore throat, or burning with urination. You should contact your doctor if you suspect that you are developing an infection. You can help prevent infections by washing your hands often and avoiding people that have the cold or flu.
Chemotherapy can cause the mouth and throat to feel dry and irritated. You may develop sores or bleeding. It can be helpful to use a soft toothbrush and brush your teeth after each meal. You should avoid over-the-counter mouthwashes that contain peroxide or alcohol. Soft foods, such as bananas, ice cream, pudding, and mashed potatoes may be less irritating to eat than rough, coarse, or dry foods. Spicy, salty, or acidic foods, such as tomatoes or oranges may be irritating and should be avoided.
The medications that are used in chemotherapy can affect your mood. You should talk to your doctor about your concerns. Your doctor may prescribe medication or recommend resources to help you during this time.
The experience of cancer and cancer treatments can be a very emotional experience for you and your loved ones. It is important to embrace positive sources of support. Some people find comfort in their families, friends, co-workers, counselors, and faith. Cancer support groups are a helpful resource where you can receive support, information, and understanding from people with similar experiences. Ask your doctor for support groups near you.