What Is Chemotherapy?

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chemo hand

Chemotherapy is a treatment that is often misperceived to be a cancer cure.

What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is designed to kill quickly reproducing cells in the body, most commonly cancer cells, by using highly potent chemicals. The chemicals used will vary based upon the type of cancer the patient has.

How is it used?
Sometimes it is used as a stand alone treatment, but most commonly it is used to either shrink tumors in preparation for other treatments like radiation or surgery, or as a final treatment to kill residual, hidden cancer cells. Sometimes, it is applicable for reducing symptoms of advanced stage cancer, but in these situations it usually only prolongs the life by a short period of time and eases the pain, not doing much to rid the cancer itself. Typically, chemotherapy is used in conjunction with other treatments to rid cancer, as it is not always effective by itself.

What does it treat?
Chemotherapy can be used for all types of cancer, although the end results vary drastically based on the individual’s case. It can also be useful at preparing the body for a bone marrow transplant or to help regulate the immune system for certain autoimmune disorders.

In what ways is chemotherapy given?
Chemotherapy can be given in a number of ways. For most people, it is given intravenously in a clinic, hospital, or at home. For some people, this option is either not available in their area, or their body cannot handle this type of chemotherapy. In certain cases, the drugs are given in pill or cream form, as a shot applied similarly to a flu shot, or by injection directly to the affected area. All methods of delivery are considered equally effective.

How often is chemotherapy administered?
The answer to this question will vary case by case, based on a number of things.

  •  The type of cancer the patient has
  •  The specific treatment plan the doctor sets up (Is the chemotherapy for pre-treatment for surgery, a standalone treatment for a cure, or to simply ease symptoms? There are many factors.)
  •  The type of chemotherapy
  •  The patient’s physical and emotional reaction to the treatment.

What are the risks associated with Chemotherapy?
With every pro, there’s a con. There are many risks and side-effects caused by chemotherapy. Sadly, when the chemicals kill the cancer cells, they kill healthy cells, like blood cells, as well, which can cause a host of problems. It can lead to dangerously low levels of important body chemicals; and aside from emotional difficulties, like depression, it can lead to other maladies, such as hair loss, weight loss, and nausea. Because healthy cells become damaged, other serious side effects can take place like lung, heart, or nerve damage, infertility, or kidney and liver problems. In certain cases, it can affect cognitive function, in the form of memory loss or flightiness. It is important to have a good treatment plan in place and to take an active role in managing side effects.

Can chemotherapy cure cancer?
This is the biggest misconception regarding chemotherapy. It cannot and does not cure cancer. Doctors describe the way it works as a “fractional cell kill”. This means that a portion of tumor cells can be killed per chemo cycle, all based on a scientific formula. In theory, there should be a number of treatments that should kill all of the tumor cells, but there are complications to this rule. For one, the human body can only take so many chemicals within a set period of time. The length between treatments will vary based on how well the patient responds to chemotherapy. For instance, if someone’s calcium or white blood cell levels become too low, time between treatments must be extended. The goal is to treat someone with the highest possible dose, in the shortest intervals of time. Between treatments, whether a short or long length of time, the cells will continue to grow and attempt to re-flourish. Doctors hope they can kill the cells faster than they grow and split, but this depends on the conditions of the cancer’s type and aggressiveness, the patient’s health, and other factors. Although this treatment works well for some patients, it may not work as well for others. Chemotherapy should not be relied upon as a definitive method of eliminating cancer. It is best to talk to a doctor about the treatment plan and expected outcomes to understand an individual’s personal goals and estimated success rates.

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