What Is Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a treatment for cancer that uses powerful drugs to destroy cancer cells. Unlike radiation or surgery, which target specific areas, chemo can work throughout your body. It targets cells that grow and divide quickly, as cancer cells do.
But it can also affect some fast-growing healthy cells, like those of the skin, hair, intestines, and bone marrow. That’s what causes some of the side effects from the treatment.
How Chemotherapy Works against Cancer
Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly. Chemotherapy is used to:
Treat cancer – Chemotherapy can be used to cure cancer, lessen the chance it will return, or stop or slow its growth.
Ease cancer symptoms – Chemotherapy can be used to shrink tumors that are causing pain and other problems.
Chemotherapy has five possible goals
Total remission – to cure the patient completely. In some cases chemotherapy alone can get rid of the cancer completely.
Combination therapy – chemotherapy can help other therapies, such as radiotherapy or surgery have more effective results.
Delay/Prevent recurrence – chemotherapy, when used to prevent the return of a cancer, is most often used after a tumor is removed surgically. Scientists at the Charite School of Medicine, Germany, found that the use of the drug gemcitabine for chemotherapy significantly delays the recurrence of cancer, compared to no chemotherapy.
Slow down cancer progression – used mainly when the cancer is in its advanced stages and a cure is unlikely. Chemotherapy can slow down the advancement of the cancer.
To relieve symptoms – also more frequently used for patients with advanced cancer.
How does chemotherapy work?
When our body cells are damaged or die we produce new ones to replace them. This is done in an orderly way, in a balanced way. Cancer cells do not have that orderly capacity – their reproduction (division and growth) is out of control – more and more of them are produced and they start to occupy more and more space, until eventually they push out space occupied by useful cells.
Chemotherapy (chemo) drugs interfere with a cancer cell’s ability to divide and reproduce. Chemo drugs may be applied into the bloodstream to attack cancer cells throughout the body, or they can be delivered directly to specific cancer sites.
Chemotherapy Can Cause Side Effects
Chemotherapy not only kills fast-growing cancer cells, but also kills or slows the growth of healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. Examples are cells that line your mouth and intestines and those that cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects, such as mouth sores, nausea, and hair loss. Side effects often get better or go away after you have finished chemotherapy.
The most common side effect is fatigue, which is feeling exhausted and worn out. You can prepare for fatigue by:
Asking someone to drive you to and from chemotherapy.
Planning time to rest on the day of and day after chemotherapy.
Asking for help with meals and childcare on the day of and at least one day after chemotherapy.