Chemotherapy is perhaps the treatment people most associate with cancer. ‘Chemo’, as it’s sometimes known, involves treating the body with chemicals in order to destroy the cancerous cells.
There are many different chemotherapy drugs, and which of these your doctors choose for your treatment will depend on the type of cancer you have. Chemotherapy treatment is most commonly administered via drip, and is carried around the body in your bloodstream.
Some patients require only small amounts of chemotherapy, but others will require a longer treatment programme. Longer programmes are administered in cycles – your are given chemotherapy treatment, then a rest, then more treatment before another rest and so on. These rest periods allow your body time to recover from the treatments as it can have strong side effects. Patients undergoing longer treatment it will usually involve a hospital stay.
WHAT DOES CHEMOTHERAPY DO?
Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer because it targets the malignant cancerous cells and destroys them. It also damages healthy cells, but while they are able to recover the cancerous cells are not.
Your medical team may use chemotherapy in a variety of ways in your treatment. Some cancers will be treated exclusively with chemotherapy, while others will require chemotherapy in conjuction with other treatment like surgery or radiotherapy. Chemotherapy can also reach parts of the body that surgery or radiotherapy are unsuitable for. It may even be prescribed after treatment to remove any remaining malignant cells that were not detected in scans or are in parts of the body that were difficult to reach with the main course of treatment.
Chemotherapy given before the main course of treatment is called ‘neo-adjuvant chemotherapy’. If you receive it after the main course of treatment, it is called ‘adjuvant chemotherapy’.
Patients being treated for cancers in the throat are will often receive chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy. This is called ‘chemoradiation’ or ‘chemoradiotherapy’.
Your team of doctors, nurses and radiotherapists will be able to explain the treatment programme chosen for you or your loved one. Do not be afraid to ask questions – they will be happy to address any and all of your concerns.
Because chemotherapy also damages healthy cells, there are unfortunately numerous side-effects patients may have to endure. These can be very challenging for the patient and their carers, but every patient is different, and while some may have to endure a period of discomfort and difficulty, others may not suffer as much.
Treatment for cancer can, honestly, be wholly unpleasant and take a while. However, if you are prepared for potential side-effects and know the best ways to live with them, you can keep the energy and attitude that you will need to fend off your illness.
Side-effects do not commonly last beyond the treatment cycle, and doctors may prescribe medications to alleviate some of the discomfort.
This is perhaps the most physically obvious side-effect of chemotherapy, and one of the most common. When chemotherapy is administered, the drugs can weaken the cells in your hair follicles and scalp, perhaps causing your hair to fall out and halting its regrowth.
Not all patients lose their hair, and some find the impact is less than they expected – different combinations of drugs have different side-effects.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Because hair loss can be quite an upsetting side-effect for patients, many opt to use wigs to help with the appearance of normality and to keep their spirits high. If this is something you choose to do, you will be able to obtain an extremely life-like wig either for free or at a discount, which can be worn until treatment stops and hair growth resumes.
An option that is sometimes available is the use of a ‘cold cap’, an item worn to reduce blood flow to the scalp, keeping chemotherapy drugs from having as much of an effect. This may lessen hair loss, but is not 100% reliable or available in all hospitals.
WEAKENED IMMUNE SYSTEM
Chemotherapy will compromise your immune system, as your body will be using a lot of its time and energy repairing the healthy cells that have been damaged. This may make you more vulnerable to infections.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: You should be careful of spending time in busy, crowded places like buses or trains. People who are also carrying an infection themselves (like a cold) should be avoided, and you should be sure to always wash your hands after using the toilet or before preparing food.
Doctors may prescribe a drug called G-CSF, which boosts your immune system by increasing your white blood cell count, but this will not be suitable in all cases.
Some chemotherapy treatments may also slow down your body’s production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen through your bloodstream. This can lead to tiredness, dizziness, lethargy and breathlessness.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: The most important thing you can do is to allow your body to rest. Chemotherapy is hard on your body, so pushing yourself is not a good idea.
In some cases, a blood transfusion may be recommended to give your body extra red blood cells and help alleviate some of the symptoms.
Nausea and vomiting are common side-effects of chemotherapy, as your digestive system is affected by the unusual chemicals.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Your medical team will be able to provide anti-sickness drugs (‘antiemetics’) to help with this, or they may prescribe steroid to help you keep your nausea under control.
Natural solutions include peppermint tea, ginger (biscuits or beer) and avoiding fried or fatty foods.
DIARRHOEA AND CONSTIPATION
Some drugs will affect the stomach lining which can mean you can experience diarrhoea or constipation. This usually does not last more than a few days, but diarrhoea can cause further problems relating to dehydration – make sure you drink enough fluid to replace what you’re losing.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Diarrhoea can be alleviated by avoiding high-fibre foods, cereals and raw fruit and veg. Constipation can be helped by doing the opposite: eat more high-fibre foods, cereals and raw vegetables. Warm drinks and fruit juice can also help if you are constipated.
CHANGES IN YOUR MOUTH
Chemotherapy can have an effect on the mouth of a patient. This is because the drugs can affect the lining of the mouth, causing pain, changes to the taste buds, and sometimes mouth ulcers.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: For mouth pain, a few different techniques may help. Sucking on ice or ice lollies can help, as can special mouthwashes and gels and rinsing your mouth with salt water to help prevent infection. Avoid acidic liquids, alcohol and tobacco.
Mouth ulcers can be treated by your medical team should they develop.
As the taste buds can change, you may found that your favourite foods no longer taste nice. Many patients play it by ear and find the right foods for them through trial and error. It is important, however, to eat well during treatment so the body has enough energy to help your recovery. For more information, check out our Nutrition page.