Chemotherapy is a medical treatment method used to fight cancer. It involves the use of powerful medications, known as chemotherapeutic drugs, to target and kill cancer cells in the body. These drugs work by disrupting the growth and division of cancer cells, preventing them from spreading or multiplying further. It can be administered through various methods, including oral medications, injections, intravenous drips, or infused through a port.

The specific type and stage of cancer determine the course of the treatment, which may involve one or a combination of drugs. While chemotherapy is aimed at destroying cancer cells, it may also affect some healthy cells, leading to certain side effects. These can vary from person to person and depend on the type and dose of medication used. Overall, it plays a significant role in cancer treatment and is often used in conjunction with other therapies to help achieve remission or control the disease.

Symptoms of Chemotherapy

The symptoms experienced by patients undergoing therapy may vary depending on the type and stage of cancer, as well as the specific medications used.  Common symptoms include:

·         Fatigue

·         Nausea

·         Vomiting

·         Hair loss

·         Loss of appetite

·         Changes in taste or smell.

Patients must communicate their symptoms to their healthcare team, who can provide appropriate measures to manage them effectively.

Types of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs can be grouped into several main categories based on how they work and their chemical structure:

·         Alkylating

·         Antimetabolites

·         Antitumor antibiotics

·         Mitotic inhibitors

·         Corticosteroids

·         Monoclonal antibodies

Each category has many specific chemotherapy drugs, often tailored to particular cancer types. The drugs may be used alone or combined into multi-drug regimens.

How is this process performed?

Chemotherapy can be administered in different ways. The most common methods are:

  • Intravenous (IV)
  • Oral
  • Injected
  • Intra-arterial
  • Intraperitoneal
  • Topical

Common Physical Side Effects

  • Fatigue – Feeling extremely tired is a very common side effect. Fatigue from chemotherapy often comes on suddenly and can be overwhelming. Plan periods of rest during the day and conserve energy for priorities.
  • Hair loss – Many chemotherapy drugs cause at least some hair loss or thinning. Use a gentle shampoo and soft brush. Consider cutting your hair short before starting chemo. Cold caps may help reduce hair loss for some chemo regimens.
  • Nausea and vomiting – It frequently causes nausea and vomiting. Anti-nausea medication can help prevent or reduce nausea. Tell your doctor if your anti-nausea medication does not seem to be working.
  • Appetite and weight changes – It may cause loss of appetite, food aversions, and weight loss. Focus on eating nutrient-rich foods when possible. Ask your doctor about nutritional supplements if needed.
  • Mouth sores – Some chemo drugs can cause sores in the mouth or on the lips. Practicing good mouth care and avoiding irritating foods can help. Your doctor can prescribe medication to ease discomfort.
  • Increased risk of infection – It destroys infection-fighting white blood cells. Take precautions to avoid exposure to germs and report signs of infection immediately.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding – Platelets help the blood clot normally. IT can reduce platelet counts, leading to increased bleeding or bruising. Avoid bumps and cuts and report unusual bleeding.

Emotional Side Effects

  • Stress and anxiety – Cancer diagnosis and chemo can be stressful. Seek support from counseling, support groups, or relaxation techniques.
  • Depression – Coping with cancer and chemotherapy may lead to depression for some people. Stay connected with loved ones and discuss any concerning symptoms with your doctor. Antidepressants or therapy can help.
  • Difficulty concentrating – Some chemo drugs cause mild to moderate “chemo brain” or trouble thinking clearly. Jot down notes and reduce distractions to help stay organized. These symptoms usually improve over time.
  • Changes in sexuality – Hormonal changes, pain, stress, and fatigue can affect sexual desire during chemotherapy. It’s important to communicate with your partner about your needs and concerns and prioritize intimacy and closeness.
  • Anger or frustration – It can cause anger or frustration. Talk to loved ones and consider counseling for coping strategies.

When is Chemotherapy Used?

Chemotherapy is primarily used to treat cancer, but it can also be used for other conditions such as autoimmune disorders. The main objective is to kill cancer cells and prevent their spread.

Some of the most common cancers chemotherapy is used for include:

Chemotherapy may be used at different stages of cancer treatment

  • Neoadjuvant chemotherapy – Given before surgery or radiation to shrink a tumour so it’s easier to operate on or target with radiation. Often used in breast, esophageal, and rectal cancers.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy – Given after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. Common in breast, colon, and lung cancers.
  • First-line – The initial regimen used to treat cancer after diagnosis.
  • Second-line or third-line chemotherapy – Used when cancer is resistant or returns after the initial chemotherapy drugs.

New Advances in Chemotherapy:

The field of oncology is rapidly evolving, with discoveries and innovations that continue to change and improve treatments. Here are some of the emerging advances:

Emerging treatment options:

  • Immunotherapy drugs – Immunotherapy utilizes the body’s immune system to fight against cancer. The new immunotherapy drugs are used alone or in combination with chemotherapy, showing promise as a new treatment approach. Drugs such as Keytruda and Opdivo block immune system proteins that prevent attacks on cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy drugs – Targeted therapies attack specific proteins and pathways that cancer cells rely on to grow and spread. Examples include trastuzumab (Herceptin) and gefitinib (Iressa). As researchers better understand cancer genetics, more targeted therapies are being developed.
  • Nanoparticle drugs – Nanoparticle drugs uses tiny particles to target cancerous tumors directly and hide the medicine from healthy cells.
  • Combination therapies – Combining chemotherapy drugs is more effective than using just one. Oncologists can tailor drug combinations to a patient’s cancer type and genetics with the increasing availability of cancer drugs.

Life After Chemotherapy

Once chemotherapy treatment is finished, you will have regular follow-up appointments with your oncology team. They will monitor you for potential long-term side effects, check for signs of recurrence, and address any lingering effects the chemotherapy may have had on your body.

Follow-up Care- After this therapy, it’s important to have regular check-ups and screenings to monitor your health and detect any cancer recurrence. Open communication with your healthcare team is crucial for ongoing support and intervention if needed. It is important to prioritize follow-up care to ensure your well-being is maintained and any potential concerns are addressed.

Long-Term Outlook- Each individual’s experience after chemotherapy varies. Key factors that impact long-term outlook include achieving remission, regular check-ups, physical recovery, emotional well-being, lifestyle changes, and managing long-term side effects. Ongoing support and self-care are important for optimizing quality of life post-chemotherapy.