Before I start, I just want to say that I find it incredibly frustrating when I see people commenting on Facebook and Twitter about how chemotherapy is a fake treatment that is used to keep people ill and people should be focusing on natural remedies to cure them. I think people should remember that every cancer case is different and what works for one person may not work for another. So please try to have a little respect for everyone’s treatment choices and understand that there are thousands of people working to make cancer a thing of the past – there are no secret cures being hidden to keep people ill. Chemotherapy, although harsh and unpleasant, does do a brilliant job with some cancer types and can help some patients beat the disease.
What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy basically means drug treatment. In cancer terms it means using cell killing drugs to treat the tumour. There are more then ninety different types of chemotherapy drugs and new ones are currently being developed as we speak. A cancer patient may be given just one of the drugs or they be given a combination of them.
Chemotherapy isn’t suitable for every cancer patient. Whether this treatment option will benefit you, as well as the type of drug you require, will depend on several factors:
*Your cancer type
*The original body part the cancer originated in
*The grading of the tumour
*The stage of the cancer and whether it has spread
*Your general health and wellbeing
Chemotherapy is sometimes used alongside other treatment types such as radiotherapy, hormone therapy or biological therapy. It can also be used before and/or after surgery. High dose chemotherapy, using an infusion of stem cells or bone marrow may also be used. This is known as a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, but I will focus on those in another post.
How Chemotherapy Works
Our bodies are made up of billions of individual cells. When we are fully grown, these cells stopped dividing as much and spend most of their time in a resting state. From this point they usually only divide if they need to repair damage. Cell division usually means one cell divides into two identical cells. Two divide into four, then eight etc….. but with cancer the cells keep on dividing until a mass forms. This then becomes a lump, which then becomes known as a tumour. Cancerous cells will divide much more then a normal cell would.
Chemotherapy will damage the dividing cells as it enters into the patients bloodstream. The cells currently trying to divide are at risk of being damaged by the chemotherapy and the chemotherapy will then kill the cell by damaging the nucleus which is telling it to divide. It can also interrupt the chemical processes which cause cell division. The chemotherapy damages the genes inside the nucleus. Some of the drugs will damage the cells on the verge of splitting whilst others will damage the cells whilst they are making copies of the genes before splitting. Resting cells are less likely to be damaged by chemotherapy.
If you are having a combination of chemotherapy drugs then they will be doing different things and attacking the cancerous cells at different points, creating more of a chance to kill off more cancerous cells.
Chemotherapy drugs circulate around the body through the bloodstream in what is known as a systemic treatment. It should be able to reach cancerous cells in almost any part of the body and can be done in many forms:
*Injections into the bloodstream
*Tablets or capsules
*Intravenous infusions/Drips into the bloodstream
Chemotherapy can be in tablet or capsule form for you to swallow. You can take these at home but will need regular visits to the outpatient department to have regular blood tests and check ups. You will usually have your first dose in hospital to make sure you don’t have any reactions to it.
Continous low dose chemotherapy is usually administered through a pump that you wear twenty four hours a day so chemotherapy is constantly released into your bloodstream. The pump will need to be changed regularly.
Chemotherapy can also be administered through your veins and this will take place at the chemothertapy day unit. This can take a few minutes or a few hours and can be done in different ways:
*A cannula is a small tube which will be put into a vein in your hand or arm.
*Central lines are sometimes used and can be put into your neck for short term chemotherapy or your chest for long term chemotherapy
*PICC line’s is a type of central line which is put into a vein in your arm
*Portacath or port’s are a small chamber which sits under your skin at the end of the central line in your chest.
The amount of chemotherapy used is individually based on the patient and is worked out according to your weight, height and general health.
Chemotherapy kills dividing cells which, in some way, explains why side effects happen. For example, many chemotherapy patients lose their hair because hair follicles are always growing and dividing so your hair will grow. These dividing cells can attract and be attacked by chemotherapy. The good news is, healthy cells can normally replace and repair themselves, which is why most patients hair will grow back once they stop having chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy Curing Cancer
The chances of chemotherapy being a success and curing your cancer will depend on a number of factors including the type of cancer your have. For example people testicular cancer can usually see good results with chemotherapy. Other types of cancer will be treated with chemotherapy alongside another treatment option as chemotherapy won’t be enough to cure it on its own.
For those patients that are unlikely to be cured, chemotherapy can be used to shrink the cancer, relieve the symptoms and to control the cancer to give you a longer life.
Chemotherapy can also be used to put the cancer into remission, which means there is no sign of cancer after the treatment. Complete remission means the cancer is not seen on scans, x rays, blood tests etc…. whilst partial remission means some of the cancer has been killed but not all of it and whilst the tumour has shrunk, it can still be seen on scans.
The Uses of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy can be used for lots of reasons:
*To shrink the tumour before surgery
*To try and prevent the cancer returning after surgery
*To treat cancers that are very sensitive to this particular treatment
*To treat a cancer that has spread from it’s original origin
If you have chemotherapy before surgery then it’s aim is to reduce the tumour to make it easier to be completely removed. This is known as primary treatment or neoadjuvant treatment. If you have chemotherapy after surgery then it’s aim is to lessen the risk of the cacner returning in the future and to kill of any microscopic cells that may have been left behind when the tumour was removed. This is known as adjuvant treatment.
It is important to note that chemotherapy isn’t always used, especially if your particular cancer type isn’t very sensitive towards it.
With high dose chemotherapy you may need to stay in hospital. This is because it is an intensive type of treatment and it can have more side effects. You will also be at risk of picking up infections so staying in hospital will ensure these can be picked up on quickly and treated promptly.
Your reaction to chemotherapy may be different to others and it is important to do what is best for you. Some people find they can live a relatively normal life during their treatment and others struggle emotionally and physically. There is nothing wrong with either of these reactions and it is important to only do as much as you can.
It is vital that chemotherapy patients eat and drink as healthily as they can and get as much rest as possible. It is perfectly normal to feel tired, not be able to sleep and not be able to eat properly.
If you have a job then your workplace should be as understanding as they can be as should a school if the patient is of school age. If you are unemployed then you will need to contact the correct government office to see what you are entitled to. Regular notes from your doctor may be required.
Most chemotherapy patients will need to adapt their normal routines during treatment and for a little while afterwards. Your food and drink preferences may also change for a while. You may need to prepare yourself for hair loss but support can be provided for you so please take advantage of that. Lean on your loved ones for support and also explore the emotional support options available at the place you are having treatment.
I think this blog post is the best one I have done yet. I have learnt so much about chemotherapy and don’t find it as scary as I did before I researched it. I watched several relatives have chemotherapy and it is a very scary thing to watch. I can only imagine how horrible it must make you feel and my heart goes out to anyone having chemotherapy and anyone that has had it in the past. I hope this post has helped you to understand the treatment.