Chemotherapy is the use of chemicals to treat disease. It is most commonly, of course, the name we associate with the treatment of cancer. By its formal definition, chemotherapy is “the therapeutic use of chemical agents to treat disease; especially, the administration of one or more cytotoxic drugs to destroy or inhibit the growth and division of malignant cells in the treatment of cancer.” Radiation and surgery can kill, remove or damage cancer cells in a particular part of the body. The chemotherapy process, however, works throughout the entire body. It’s aim is to kill cancer cells that have already metastasised (spread) to parts of the body away from the original tumour, however, although effective at killing cancer cells, chemo is not very effective at killing the cancer stem cells (mother cells or original cancer cells).
Chemotherapy, or chemo, is a controversial treatment for a number of reasons. Of particular concern are the notorious side effects of the drugs. Debilitating nausea, vomiting, fatigue, immune system damage and hair loss are among the most feared. Thousands of cancer patients accept the chemotherapy process though, because they fear cancer more than chemo, and they believe it will cure them of their disease.
Of course, there are no guarantees with cancer. This is why doctors tend to say they use chemo with “curative intent.” Cure is, naturally, the ultimate goal, but things may not go as hoped. It can take years before you know for sure if your cancer is really cured.
If the cancer is such that there is no hope of killing it completely, chemo is still an option as it helps control the spread of the disease. Chemotherapy can shrink tumours, making you feel better and prolonging your life, on the positive side. On the negative side, chemotherapy destroys your healthy cells, destroys the immune system, damages the blood vessels, nerves and intestines, damages your liver and kidneys and may give you ‘chemo brain’.
Chemo can also be used palliatively, to ease the symptoms caused by cancer. When the disease is very advanced and a cure is definitely not possible, the goal of chemo is to improve the quality of life of the patient by reducing pressure and pain.
Which Chemotherapy Process Will I Go Through?
Chemotherapy drugs interfere with mitosis (ability to divide and reproduce) of a cancer cell. They can also:
- Trigger the suicide of cancer cells (apoptosis).
- Target the cancer cells’ food source (the hormones and enzymes they need to grow.)
- Starve the tumour by stopping the growth of new blood vessels.
Your doctor will decide what drug or combination of drugs you will get. He or she will also choose the doses, how it’s administered (intravenously or orally), how often you need to come for treatment and how many treatments you need overall. He makes these decisions based on what type of cancer you have, how far advanced it is, where it is, and how it affects your normal body functions and overall health.
Chemotherapy drugs are extremely strong, and have narrow safety and efficacy range. Take too little, and it’s not strong enough to kill the cancer, take too much, and it could kill you. This is why doctors take inordinate care when calculating chemo doses. Most chemo drugs are measured in milligrams (mg), and dosages are calculated based on your weight in kilograms. For example, if the standard dose of a chemo drug is 10mg per kilo of body weight, then a person weighing 50 kilograms would receive 500mg of the chemo drug per session.
Is Chemotherapy Right For Me?
There is no way anyone other than you can answer this question. Some people swear by the treatment, as it cured them. Others refuse to put poisonous chemicals in their bodies. Instead, they prefer to try more natural, alternative remedies and adopt significant lifestyle changes. This is an extremely personal decision, and you shouldn’t make it lightly. You need to engage in proper research and discussion with oncologists, surgeons and integrative medicine physicians, they can advise you on all options of treatment.
“Cancer doesn’t come with a cheat sheet. How you manage your treatment plan is a very difficult decision. You need expert input from your doctors and support from your family. But, at the end of the day, it is your body, and your decision. Regardless of how you decide to treat your cancer, make the decision that is best for you, and honour that decision.”
Holly, in her blog Pink Fortitude.
If you decide on chemo, it’s very important to remember that whatever chemotherapy process you go through, the treatment takes its toll on your body. Chemo drugs work by killing fast-growing cells in your body. Unfortunately, this means they kill healthy white blood cells as well as cancer cells. White blood cells are one of your body’s main defences against infection, meaning you are at a much higher risk of getting an infection while you’re receiving chemo. Infection not only makes you sick, it can delay further chemo treatment and may even land you in hospital or kill you. This is why it’s vital to do everything you can to prevent infection – and to seek immediate medical treatment if you suspect you have one.
Six-step approach to cancer support and treatment.
I have a special interest in Cancer Prevention, Support and Treatment. My team and I see patients from all over South Africa, as well as internationally for support or treatment of their cancer, from Stage 1 to Stage 4.
We offer our patients advice about all options of cancer treatment, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or alternative therapies, like viral immunotherapy, or a combination of treatments and support.
We have a six-step approach to cancer support and treatment. This involves education about the disease and its causes, what to eat and drink, and which food supplements and immune boosters to take. We also show you how to detoxify your body, which toxins, chemicals and foods to avoid, and how to give up alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.