What Is Chemotherapy?

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Chemotherapy is one of the ways to treat cancer. Cancer is a disease in which the body's cells begin to grow abnormally. When these cells begin to clump together, they begin to form tumours. However, not all lumps of cells are cancerous (these are known as benign tumours). When they are cancerous, they are called malignant tumours - which, can begin to travel to other. parts of the body. 

One way cancer is commonly treated is through chemotherapy, either alone or combined with other treatments (such as, surgery, radiotherapy treatment, immunotherapy etc.). Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment which uses chemicals to destroy cancer cells.

How Does Chemotherapy Work? 

Chemotherapy is the use of certain drugs to stop cancer cells from growing. It may kill the cells completely or it may stop the cells from dividing and, in that way, prevent the cancer from growing. It can either cure the cancer completely, slow down its growth and thereby ensure a better and longer quality of life, or it can be used palliatively. With palliative care treatment, the aim of chemotherapy is to help prevent symptoms from the cancer that could be causing distress.

An example would be to use chemotherapy to shrink a tumour that is putting pressure on organs and nerves and causing pain and discomfort. Sometimes chemotherapy is used before surgery, to help shrink the tumour and make it easier to remove, or after surgery to “mop up” remaining cancer cells that survive after the operation is completed. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy. 

Depending on the type of cancer involved, chemotherapy may be the only treatment needed, but more often than not, it is given in combination with surgery, radiation therapy or biologic therapies which are targeted immunotherapies. 

How Long Does Chemotherapy Take? 

This is a decision that will be taken with your health provider. It all depends on the type and the stage of the cancer involved. Chemo sessions can be as short as half an hour but can extend to infusions that may last as long as eight hours.  Chemo is often administered in cycles that allow your body time to recover in between. So, for example, you may receive chemo every day or a number of days for a week and then stop for a few weeks to allow for your body to recover. 

How Is Chemotherapy Administered? 

Chemotherapy may be given by orally as a pill, capsule or liquid, by an injection, or an infusion – which is given intravenously through a drip - or topically on the skin, depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. Chemotherapy can also be given directly into the artery that is feeding the cancer or into the peritoneal cavity which is the abdominal area where many of your organs reside. Chemotherapy can be given in different venues depending on what you are taking. You could take it from home without having to go into hospital or you may need to go into the doctor’s office, a clinic or hospital. 

 Is It Painful? 

Chemotherapy is generally not painful at the time of receiving it, although some people do experience a burning sensation at the injection site or up their arm as the medicine enters the vein.  

Are There Side Effects to Chemotherapy? 

Cancer cells divide quickly, and chemotherapy works by targeting these fast dividing cells. However, there are healthy cells in your body that also divide quickly, and chemotherapy may also affect those cells. These include the cells in your mouth, your intestine and your hair cells which is why with chemotherapy people may get mouth ulcers and hair loss.  

Other common side effects include tiredness, nausea and vomiting and some people experience nerve pain. Not everyone experiences pain from chemotherapy and not everyone gets side effects, but many people do experience various levels of discomfort. Most of the side effects disappear after the chemotherapy treatment is over, but sometimes side effects can linger for months or even years. Different people respond in different ways, and it is important to speak to your health care provider to understand what the side effects may be and how you can cope with them. 

Many people continue to work when on chemotherapy. They may take time off if they are feeling weak or tired. Speak to your employer to find out how your needs can be accommodated.   

How Do You Know If It Is Working? 

You cannot tell yourself if it is working, by assessing how severe or easy your response is to the treatment. Your doctor will examine you and take tests to monitor your response to the chemotherapy and to see if it is working. This will also help your doctor to decide if the treatment needs to be modified in some way to be more effective. 

 How to Cope with Chemotherapy 

Patients will each have their own ways of coping with chemotherapy. Similarly, side effects of chemotherapy treatment will vary by patient. However, it is important to communicate with your healthcare provider when undergoing chemotherapy. You may have lots of questions to ask about your health and the proposed treatments. Make notes of the questions you have so that you can be sure to cover all your concerns. Tell the doctor how much you want to know as not everyone wants to know all the information about their cancers. It is important to try to be in a relaxed frame of mind during the treatment. Light exercise is permissible and meditation and other techniques to support relaxation are very helpful. Many people also find great comfort in joining a support group where people going through similar experiences are able to share their feelings, their fears and the ways in which they cope with their cancer diagnosis and treatment. 

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