Chemotherapy 101

Chemotherapy is one of the methods for treatment of cancer, often recommended alongside other treatments such as radiation therapy and surgery. If you have a loved one recommended to undergo chemotherapy, you need to know why it is done, what is it for, and what are its possible effects.

How does chemotherapy work?

The goal of chemotherapy is to disrupt the division and formation of cancer cells, but because healthy cells can be affected, it must be able to minimize the damage through chemotherapy protocols. These protocols are tailored depending on the type of cancer, a method which has been improved throughout the years.

For this to work, there is a medication or a combination of medication that treats cancer. The medication attacks the growing cancer cells which are about to split into two new cells. Other medications also damage only part of the cell that controls it division while other disrupt the chemical processes for cell division.

What is it recommended for?

Chemotherapy may be needed to shrink the tumor before radiation therapy or surgery, after surgery or radiation therapy to kill remaining cancer cells, or if the cancer comes back. The combination of the drugs, the doses, and how long the treatment is will be decided by the doctors by considering the type of cancer, how fat the cancer has spread, tumor size, tumor location, your age, other existing conditions, and how it might affect other functions.

How are doses determined?

The medication given are usually stronger than other medication, but if not given enough or given too much the effect might not be positive. To avoid side effects, doctors compute the dose based on the body weight of the patient or on the body surface area.

Children and the elderly will have different doses than the adults, but sensitivity to certain medications are also considered. The dose may also differ if the person is taking other medications, is overweight, is malnourished, is undergoing another cancer treatment, and has low blood cell count.

What is chemotherapy cycle?

The treatment is given at regular intervals. This is called the therapy cycle which mean that several doses may be given for a few days and then no medication for days or weeks so that the body has enough time to recover from the damage or side effects.

What are the methods of chemotherapy?

In chemotherapy, certain medications are given to target specific cell cycle phases. Alkalyting agents are non-specific but are active during the resting phase; plant alkaloids attack during the division of the cells; antitumor antibiotics attack during multiple phases; antimetabolites incorporate into the cell to stop division; topoisomerase inhibitors stop the topoisomerase enzymes; and antineoplastic which can be retinoids, antimicrotubule, etc.

What are the risks or side effects?

Common side effects of chemotherapy include fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, stomach pain, nerve damage, mouth or throat sores, diarrhea or constipation, loss of appetite, hair loss, vomiting and nausea, blood disorders, difficulty concentrating, and fertility issues.