Chemotherapy is an aggressive type of cancer therapy with the goal of destroying rapidly growing cancer cells in the body.
A healthy body replaces cells in a controlled manner through a process of dividing and growing. However, when cancer occurs, the cells tend to reproduce in an uncontrolled manner. As the body is producing more cells than required, the newly produced cells start to occupy the space of the useful cells. Chemotherapy interferes with the cancer’s cells ability to rapidly divide and produce.
What Does Chemotherapy Do?
Chemotherapy drugs are primarily used to:
- Prevent cell division
- Shrink tumor size
- Minimize current symptoms
- Target the food source of the cancer cells (the hormones and enzyme they need to grow)
- Trigger apoptosis –suicide- of the cancer cells
An oncologist (a doctor that specializes in cancer treatment) may recommend chemotherapy in different scenarios such as:
- After surgery or remission to kill any remaining cancer cells and prevent or delay a recurrence
- To slow the progression of cancer and reduce symptoms of the later stages such as pain if the cure is unlikely
- To prepare the patient for other types of treatments such as radiation therapy
Apart from cancer treatment, chemotherapy can be used to prepare patients with bone marrow conditions for a bone marrow stem cell treatment. It can also be used for immune system disorders. Much lower doses than those used for cancer treatment may be used to treat diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Types of Chemotherapy
There are different types of chemotherapy, and these include:
- Alkylating agents: These affect the DNA and kill the cancer cells at different stages of their cell life cycle.
- Antimetabolites: They mimic the proteins that the cells depend on to survive. They offer no benefit to the cells once they consume them leading the cells to starve.
- Plant alkaloids: They prevent the cancer cells from growing and dividing.
- Antitumor antibiotics: These stop the cancer cells from reproducing.
Factors that determine the type of chemotherapy a patient will use and how well it’ll work are:
- Type, location, and stage of the cancer
- The patient’s age, overall health, and existing medical conditions if any
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a treatment that is designed to kill cells that divide at a fast rate. However, there are other cells in our body that also do this hence they can be adversely affected by chemotherapy. They are cells in the following areas:
- Lining in the intestinal tract
Due to this, the side effects of chemotherapy include:
- Dry mouth
- Mouth sores
- Easy bruising
- Excessive bleeding
- Hair loss
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Pain from nerve damage
- Skin and nail changes
- Concentration problems
- Memory problems
- Fertility changes
- Sexual changes
Most of the side effects of chemotherapy usually subside when the treatment is over. However, there is some risk of developing long-lasting effects, which can develop even years after the treatment depending on the type of chemotherapy administered.
These long-lasting side effects could affect the:
- Reproductive organs
There is also a chance that a patient can develop a second cancer once the chemotherapy has ended.
How Chemotherapy is Performed?
The oncologist will make plans with the patient, which will specify the treatment sessions and how many they’ll need.
The course of treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer and can range from a single dose to a few weeks’ treatment. Patients who need more than one course of treatment usually take a rest period to allow their body to recover.
Blood tests are usually done before the treatment to ensure the patient will be able to cope with the possible side effects.
Chemotherapy is typically given directly into the vein by IV or injection or in pill form. There are other forms in which chemotherapy can be administered and these include:
- Some forms of skin cancers can be treated with chemotherapy creams
- Oral medication as pills
- Chemotherapy drugs can be delivered directly into the tumor, but this depends on the tumor’s location
- Chemotherapy drugs can be delivered through localized treatment into specific parts of the body, such as directly into the chest, abdomen, central nervous system, or into the bladder via the urethra
In some cases, the medication can be taken at home, such as pills, but regular hospital visits to monitor the progress of the treatment will still be needed.
It is important to tell your oncologist about any side effects or treatment related problems you may be having so that if necessary, adjustments can be made to your treatment.
At King’s College Hospital Dubai, we focus on offering an exemplary service. From initial consultation through to final diagnosis, treatment and beyond. Our multidisciplinary team of expert doctors and nurses, and technologists led by Dr Hassan Ghazal – an American triple board-certified Consultant Medical Oncologist and a Consultant Clinical Hematologist with more than 3 decades of clinical experience, are here to offer tailored management and treatment of your condition, and to answer any questions that you may have throughout your time with us. Whatever you need us for, we’re only a phone-call away.