Chemotherapy

The term chemotherapy encompasses more than 50 drugs which act by directly causing cancer cells to die. These drugs may be administered orally in tablet form, directly into various body cavities (e.g.: the chest), or most commonly directly into the veins in the form of an intravenous drip. Treatment using a drip may take as little time as a few minutes, to as long as four days continuously.

Depending on the type and stage of cancer from which a particular patient is suffering, chemotherapy drugs are given either alone or in combinations (using more than one drug at a time).

Chemotherapy treatment is given in courses, termed 'cycles'. These may involve treatment with a drip once every few weeks, treatment with a drip daily or weekly repeated every few weeks, courses of tablets taken for a few days every month, or combinations of these, i.e. one cycle may involve many treatments. The cycles of treatment are generally repeated until the best possible response is achieved.

Chemotherapy drugs work in a number of different ways, but as most of them cause damage to cells in the body that are dividing (reproducing), it is easy to understand that in addition to causing damage to cancer cells, normal cells of the body may be affected as well. This is what causes many of the side effects that may occur during chemotherapy treatment. As with any other type of medical treatment, the risk of side effects must be weighed up against the possible beneficial effects of treatment on a patient-by-patient basis.

Side-effects

The side effects of chemotherapy vary greatly depending on the particular medicines prescribed, as well as the individual tolerance of each patient. Your doctor will explain to you exactly what side effects may be anticipated from a particular course of treatment.

Generally speaking, chemotherapy medicines may make you feel nauseous, and possibly even cause vomiting. Medicines to prevent this as much as possible are routinely given at the same time as chemotherapy drugs. Most patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment will also feel tired / lethargic, and may have a poor appetite.

Chemotherapy medicines may also cause temporary hair loss. If the risk of hair loss is high with a particular treatment, your doctor will advise you of your options in obtaining a wig prior to starting treatment. This way, a wig can be selected that matches your own hair colour and style as closely as possible.

In addition to harming tumour cells, chemotherapy drugs may damage the very active cells in your bone marrow. This is where the blood cells in the body are made, and if production is decreased because of chemotherapy, the effects may be seen as a decrease in the blood cells in your veins. This may have various effects, including:

  • anaemia which will aggravate the tiredness referred to above;
  • decreased immunity and increased likelihood of contracting various infections eg: colds and flu; and
  • an increased risk of bruising/bleeding caused by low numbers of platelets - small fragments in the blood that aid in clotting (this is why you will need to have a blood sample taken to measure your blood counts before starting and/or continuing a course of chemotherapy treatment).

If you have any unusual symptoms or develop a fever during a course of chemotherapy, you must contact your doctor immediately in case this may be related to a side-effect of the treatment that may itself require treatment. Please also inform your doctor of any abnormal occurrences that happened after chemotherapy treatment.