What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a form of treatment, a very aggressive, that targets rapidly growing cells. It is used for the treatment of cancer, as cancer cells are fast-growing. An oncologist specializes in the treatment of cancers. He or she will work with you to create a suitable plan for treatment.
Chemotherapy is often combined with other forms of treatment, like hormone therapy, radiation, or surgery. The therapy used depends on:
- Your overall health
- Stage of cancer
- Past treatments
- Where your cancer cells are located
- Your preferred treatment methods
Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. This means that the entire body is affected by the treatment.
Chemotherapy has proven to be very effective against cancer cells. However, it has several side effects that can affect your quality of life. It is important that you consider these side effects, and weigh them against the risk of not having treatment before going for it.
Why use chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is mainly used to:
- Reduce the number of cancer cells in your body
- Shrink tumors
- Reduce the spread of the cancer
- Resolve ongoing symptoms
If you've had surgery to reduce a tumor, for instance, a lumpectomy for breast cancer, you will be advised to have chemotherapy to ensure that other hidden cells are killed as well.
Chemotherapy also prepares the patient for further treatments. It shrinks tumors so that it can be removed with ease, and also prepares the patient for radiation therapy.
Also, chemotherapy relieves pain in late-stage cancers.
Apart from treating cancers, chemotherapy prepares patients for bone marrow stem cell transplant. It also helps with the treatment of immune system disorders. The doctor can also use lower doses to treat rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other autoimmune conditions.
Does chemotherapy have any side effects?
Chemotherapy is very toxic to rapidly-dividing cells. While cancer cells divide and multiply rapidly, other cells in the body divide fast as well. Cells that may be affected by chemotherapy include:
- Blood cells
- Skin cells
- Cells in hair follicles
- The lining of the intestine
As such, the side effects of chemotherapy include:
- Excessive bleeding and bruising
- Dry mouth
- Hair loss
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Pain due to nerve damage
- Memory problems
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Fertility changes
- Sexual changes
- Nail changes
These side effects can be managed with lifestyle changes, medications, and more.
Most of the side effects subside after you’ve completed chemotherapy. However, there’s always the risk of long-lasting effects, depending on the chemo used.
Long-lasting side effects damage to organs such as:
- Reproductive organs
You may also be at risk of having another cancer due to chemotherapy. Before you start treatment, discuss with your doctor about the potential risks and possible symptoms.
Preparing for chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a serious form of treatment thus it is important to make preparations before commencing treatment. Your healthcare provider will let you in on the possible effects associated with the therapy.
Before you start treatment, you will do a series of tests to determine whether you are physically fit for chemotherapy. Tests will include the examination of vital organs like your heart and liver. The results of these tests will help your doctor to decide what kind of therapy to use.
You may also need to visit your dentist before starting treatment. Chemotherapy alters your body’s healing potentials, thus infections to your teeth or gums will spread across your body.
Your healthcare provider may install a port if the chemotherapy is to be administered intravenously. A port is a small implant made in your body, mostly in your chest close to your shoulder. This will allow the oncologist to access your veins with ease. During treatment, the IV line will be inserted into the port.
The process of chemotherapy
You will work with your oncologist to determine the best line of treatment. Chemotherapy is administered as a pill or via injection or IV. It may also be administered in several ways such as:
- Direct delivery into the tumor (this depends on the location of the tumor). If you remove the tumor through surgery, your doctor will implant slow-dissolving discs that will release the medication gradually.
- Chemotherapy creams may be used to treat skin cancers.
- The therapy can be delivered to a targeted region of the body via localized treatment (like the chest, abdomen, bladder, or central nervous system).
- Some forms of chemo may be taken orally through pills.
- Liquid chemo medications can be delivered in shots.
The point of treatment depends on your preferred method of delivery. If you use pills or creams, you can treat yourself at home. Other forms of treatment may only be done at a cancer treatment facility or a hospital.
The chemotherapy schedule is usually customized. And it can be changed if your body cannot withstand the treatment. It can also be increased or decreased depending on how well the cancer cells respond to treatment.
How to boost your immune system during chemotherapy
Most times, chemotherapy leaves the patient vulnerable to infections. Here are some steps that can help you boost your immunity during chemotherapy.
Ask your doctor about any protective medications
Ask your doctor whether he or she can provide any protective medications to boost your immunity or prevent infection.
If your risk of getting infected is high, your doctor will prescribe colony-stimulating factors or growth factors. Colony-stimulating factors can be administered as a skin patch or as an injection. The treatments promote blood cell development and minimize the risk of getting infected. But then, they may cause temporary side effects.
If you have a weak immune system, your doctor might give you prophylactic antibiotics.
Get the annual flu shot
A flu shot gotten yearly reduces your risk of getting the flu. The flu is a life-threatening disease.
A guideline by the American Cancer Society says that the flu shot may be administered two weeks before the chemo. It can also be administered between chemo cycles. Cancer patients should avoid the nasal mint flu vaccine.
Unhealthy foods weaken the immune system. It also increases your chances of falling sick. This explains why you must eat healthily at all times. ensure that your food is enriched with nutrients and calories according to your body’s requirements.
Sometimes, eating well might be tricky, considering that cancer treatments can affect one’s appetite. Your doctor will refer you to a dietitian who will help you to develop a suitable eating plan. Sometimes, they might recommend tube feedings, dietary supplements, or intravenous feedings to boost your nutritional status.
Germs can spread through contaminated drinks and foods. Ensure that you wash all raw vegetables and fruits before consumption. Cook all animal products thoroughly before eating them.
Regular washing of the hands is important
Your hygiene is of the utmost importance when your immune system is weakened. You can reduce your risk of falling sick via regular washing of the hands with warm water and soap.
If there’s no soap, clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
You should also shower regularly and brush your teeth daily.
Limit contact with sick people
Do not spend time with people who are infected, or with people who are down with the flu or a fever. If you have a sick person at home:
- Avoid sharing the same room with them.
- Do not share personal products
- Wash all objects or surfaces that might have been touched by the sick person.
- Regular washing of the hands is important.
It is also important that you avoid large crowds. You never can tell who has a viral infection within the crowd.
Chemotherapy can affect your immune system and alter your body’s ability to fight infections. This explains why you must take active steps to safeguard your immunity.
Ask your friends and loved ones to assist you with chores that might heighten your risk. Discuss with your healthcare provider about other preventive and protective steps that you may need.