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Chemotherapy for Cancer: Things You Should Know

A healthy body constantly keeps producing cells through the process of dividing and growing. But when the body starts to rapidly produce more cells these cells start to occupy the space left by the previous cells. When these cells settle at a fast pace they start to accumulate rapidly and this leads to the formation of tumours.  

Chemotherapy is one way to stop these cells from growing rapidly - using anti-cancer (cytotoxic) medicines.

The objective of administering chemotherapy is to stop the growth of new blood vessels. This stops these new blood vessels from supplying blood to the tumor which will eventually lead to healing the tumor. However studies have shown that chemotherapy medications may also  affect some of your body's healthy cells, This leads to certain complications.

The majority of negative effects subside once treatment is completed. If you or a loved one have chemotherapy prescribed as part of your treatment, read on to   know about chemotherapy, the procedure, testing, side effects, preparation and aftercare, so that you are informed and well- prepared for your treatment.

Procedure

Chemotherapy sessions will depend on the type and stage of cancer detected. There are different kinds of chemotherapy treatments available. The number of sessions also may vary from patient to patient.  For some - a few sessions of chemotherapy are enough for them to become cancer free,  while for others it may take longer to recover.

During a chemotherapy session, the medication is either given through an IV line or in the form of pills or capsules. In some cases, creams may be used to treat skin cancer. Usually most people would receive the treatment at a clinic or treatment centre, but sometimes a person can also take these medications at home. In such cases it is very essential that the medications are taken at the exact time as prescribed. If that doesn’t happen by any chance, you should consult the doctor immediately.

Chemotherapy is normally administered in a series of sessions, with rest breaks in between. Your body will be able to recover from any side effects during the rest period. This rest period also allows the healthy cell count in your blood to return to normal. A cycle of your treatment consists of chemo and a period of relaxation. Your oncologist will tell you how many cycles you'll need to manage the cancer. You'll have a good idea of what is happening to your body after your first cycle, how you can cope and how much you'll be able to do during your therapy.

Preparation

Learning about chemotherapy treatment and its impact will help you be more prepared and enable you to stay in control.

Check out the following steps to know more:

  • Work & Education—Thinking about your work or education commitments before starting chemotherapy is a good thing to do. Many chemotherapy sessions are Monday-Friday, allowing you to rest over the weekend.
  • Help at home- Chemotherapy may make you feel tired, so you may need help with your daily activities at home. Don’t be afraid to ask family and friends for help. If you live alone, you can also seek help from a healthcare professional.
  • Dental examinations- Before beginning chemotherapy, your medical professional may suggest you get a dental examination. If your teeth or implants are in good shape, you'll have less of a chance of experiencing problems with your oral health throughout therapy.
  • Taking other medications, nutrients, or supplements- Always inform your cancer specialist of all prescription and non-prescription medications, vitamins you consume or intend to use to ensure that nothing interferes with your treatment.
  • Assistance with children- If you have children, you may require help getting them to and from school or sports. You can take the assistance of relatives and friends. It's also beneficial to have someone you can call to watch your children, such as a babysitter. You can even leave the kids at a daycare center while you have chemo.
  • Fertility and Chemo- Before treatment, ask your specialist if chemotherapy medicines affect your reproductive system and fertility. You can consider harvesting and freezing sperm or eggs for maintaining long term fertility.

Tests and Screenings before your session

Before starting chemotherapy, your oncologist or nurse will discuss any tests, scans, or check-ups you may require. Some of them are as follows:

  • X-rays and Scans

Before you start chemotherapy, you may require tests to evaluate the overall functioning of certain organs, such as the lungs, heart, or kidneys. Different types of x-rays or scans may be recommended. An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), for example, can be recommended if you are taking medications that may affect your heart.

Pre session blood screening

Before every cycle of chemotherapy, you will be asked to give a blood sample. Your blood can be screened 1 to 2 days before chemotherapy to save time.

  • Pregnancy test

Before beginning therapy, women may need to take a pregnancy test.

Process

Chemotherapy can be administered to a person in various forms, depending on their type of cancer and the treatment planned according to their oncologist, who will go through everything with you.

Depending on the type of chemotherapy prescribed, you may need to take your treatment as an inpatient or as an outpatient.

Chemotherapy may be administered in various methods :

- Infusion or IV line directly into the bloodstream, known as intravenous chemotherapy

- Oral chemotherapy in the form of pills or capsules.

- Injection into a muscle, also known as intramuscular chemotherapy

- Injection into the skin or subcutaneous chemotherapy

- Directly into a bodily cavity or intracavitary, such as the bladder

- Directly to the skin as a cream for some skin cancer cases

Sometimes Chemotherapy can also involve other procedures such as :

  • Surgery: Tumor is directly removed from the affected area through surgery.
  • Radiation: treating cancer through the use of radioactive particles.  You may need to wear radioactive material when you go for this method.
  • Biological therapy: Introducing microorganisms such as vaccines and antibodies in order to target the cancer cells.
  • Neoadjuvant chemotherapy: This method is used to essentially shrink the tumor in order to perform surgery later on.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy: targeting the remaining cancer cells in your body after surgery or radiation therapy

Side Effects

Chemotherapy treatment may result in side-effects. Some are more prevalent than others. It’s also possible for a patient not to feel any side effects. Chemotherapy is meant to stop cells from multiplying rapidly, but during this treatment while the cancer cells are being diminished, the other healthy cells in your body may also be affected.

Some of the common side effects that occur during chemotherapy are as follows :

  • Hair loss: one of the most common side effects, but it doesn't happen with everyone. Typically, it’s only temporary, and the hair grows back after chemotherapy sessions are complete. If you have concerns regarding this, you may ask your oncologist for more details.
  • Fatigue : The treatments can be very exhausting. It’s essential that a person gets adequate rest while recovering.
  • Nausea : Another common side effect during the treatment is nausea. You can consult your care team regarding this and they may provide you medications to help you.

While these are the most common side effects there may be other side effects such as easily bruising and bleeding, diarrhea, dry mouth, mouth soreness, loss of appetite, etc.

 

Chemotherapy  may have long-term consequences for certain people.  These side effects can continue for six months or even develop years after chemotherapy.

After care 

The success of your treatment will be monitored by your doctor and cancer care team regularly. Screening tests and blood tests are often done routinely. It’s best to have a clear communication with your oncologist during and after your treatment. Any adverse effects or post treatment-related challenges should be reported to your doctor for appropriate action.

Chemotherapy can take a lot from a person physically and mentally. Despite this, it’s  worth noting that in most cases the positive outcome of curing cancer outweighs the negative impact of chemotherapy.

It is best to go to your oncologist who will guide and recommend the best option for you.

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