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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

What Is Chemotherapy And Why Is It Given To People With Cancer?

Written by Oluwatoyin Joy Oke on 
10th May, 2022
Updated: 3rd March, 2024
Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘chemotherapy’ or it’s shortened form ‘chemo’? To some, it reminds them of the day they were diagnosed of cancer and told that chemotherapy is a treatment to consider, to others it's just a dreaded term that they don't really understand. Whichever it is, the mere mention of chemo or chemotherapy can create a rush of emotion in the mind of someone that has been directly or indirectly affected by cancer.

This article answers questions such as

  • What is chemo?
  • What are the types of chemotherapy and how are they administered? 
  • How do you prepare for chemotherapy?
  • And many more tips to help you or your loved one cope with chemotherapy treatment and it's side effects.

What is Chemotherapy?                                      

Chemotherapy is a form of chemical drug used to destroy cancer cells. But it is not very specific and it usually doesn't only destroy cancer, it can affect other fast-growing cells in the body which will give rise to side effects. This is discussed later in this article. But we do want to say here that the field of cancer treatment is changing rapidly, the drugs used to treat cancer are now becoming less harsh and more specific and the side effects of chemotherapy are not always as bad as might be expected or as they used to be. This will depend on the type of cancer being treated and its stage. That is why an oncologist, who understands the different drugs, types of cancer and stages of cancer is consulted. They come up with a specific treatment plan and work out the most effective cancer treatment (which usually doesn't just involve chemo, but may involve radiotherapy, surgery or personalized medicine).

Please note however that the role of medical and clinical oncologists actually varies between countries and so this article is speaking in generalities with regards to roles.

Chemotherapy is a treatment option that uses drugs to kill cancer cells

In the true sense of it, chemotherapy drugs prevent the cancers from growing, dividing and spreading to other parts of the body, depending on the type and stage of cancer. In the event that cancer cells have started to spread, chemo will be used to slow the growth process. Chemotherapy drugs are also used to manage the symptoms caused by cancer.

Chemotherapy can be used indefinitely and is often combined with other therapies such as surgery, radiotherapy, or hormone therapy to treat cancer. This combination therapy will depend on the stage of cancer, your overall health, and any previous cancer treatment. It can also depend on the location of your cancer and your treatment goals and preferences.

Chemotherapy is sometimes called a systemic treatment because the chemotherapy drugs move through the system by traveling through the blood bloodstream to kill cancer. There is also regional chemotherapy which can be directed to a specific part of the body.

How do chemotherapy drugs work?

Chemotherapy treatment helps to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. But in that same process of killing cancer, healthy cells are also affected. The damage done to healthy cells leads to side effects, which is discussed later in this article. There are many different types of chemo drugs and they work in different ways.

Types of chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer

Alkylating agents work directly on DNA to keep the cell from reproducing itself. These drugs will kill cells in all phases of the cell cycle.

Examples of alkylating agents are Chlorambucil, Cyclophosphamide, Cisplatin, and Carboplatin.

Nitrosoureas act similar to alkylating agents. They slow down or stop enzymes that help repair DNA.

Examples are Carmustine and Lomustine.

Anti-metabolites interfere with a cell’s RNA and DNA. They only work when cells are dividing.

Examples are Fluorauracil, Methotrexate and Fludarabine.

Plant alkaloids block a cell’s ability to divide and become two cells, and they also block the repair of cells.

Examples are Vincristine, Paclitaxel, and Topotecan.

Anti-tumor antibiotics, also called anti-neoplastic drugs made from micro-organisms. They either break up DNA strands or slow down or stop DNA synthesis that cells need to grow.

Examples are Bleomycin, Doxorubicin and Mitoxantrone.

Starting Chemotherapy treatment

Where do you go for chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy drugs can be given in a variety of ways at different places.

Some are administered during the day in the hospital outpatient clinic or a treatment center. It may even be necessary to stay at the hospital if your chemo treatment will be a complex one. But some chemo drugs can be taken in tablet form at home.

How to plan for chemo treatment

Your oncologist will decide what drugs or a combination of drugs to use and how they will be given. They will also decide how often and how long you'll get treatment. These decisions aremade based on the following:

  • Your cancer type
  • The stage of your cancer
  • The location
  • If it has spread to other parts of the body
  • Your body weight, its functions, and conditions.

Your doctor will discuss with you which administration process or drugs will help to attack your cancer well. Your doctor or nurse will monitor your chemo for side effects of chemotherapy.

How is chemotherapy treatment administered?

The administration of chemotherapy drugs depends on your type of cancer and type of chemotherapy being used.

  • Intravenous chemo drug: - this involves passing the drugs through your vein. It may be given to you for few days or weeks. This is the most common way chemo drugs are administered.
  • Injected chemotherapy drug: - it is a process of giving a shot in your muscle or under your skin.
  • Topical chemo drugs: - some chemotherapy drugs are in form of cream. They are applied directly on the skin. These are mostly used for people with skin cancer.
  • Chemo drug can be placed in the person's arm or abdomen: - For some cancers that spreads to the peritoneum or cancer that develops in the abdomen, chemotherapy can be placed on the abdomen.
  • Oral chemotherapy: - Chemo in the form of pills, capsules, or liquid. These can be picked up at the pharmacy and used at home.

You need to be in good health before starting chemotherapy treatment

Your doctor may need you to take some tests to check your general health conditions. And to make sure the treatment is good for you.

The tests may include:

  • Blood tests: to check the condition of your kidney and liver. It is also carried out to check the number of blood cells in the body.
  • X-ray: to check the size of your cancer.
  • Height and weight: to ensure you're given the right dose of treatment.
  • Blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and temperature taken to ensure general good health.

It should be noted that during your treatment there will be a need for more tests. This is to monitor how well you are responding to treatment.

Before you begin your treatment.

Your treatment care team will make a plan that shows the following:

  • the type of chemo you will receive
  • how many treatment sessions there will be
  • how often you will need treatment

You may have chemotherapy in “cycles,” which means a period of treatment and then a period of rest. For example, a 4-week cycle maybe 1 week of treatment and then 3 weeks of rest. The rest allows your body to make new healthy cells. Once a cycle has been planned out, it’s better not to skip a treatment, but your doctor may suggest it if side effects are serious. Then your medical team will likely plan a new cycle to help you get back on track,

What Is Chemotherapy And Why Is It Given To People With Cancer - Preparing for chemo

How do you prepare for chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a serious treatment option. So it is important to prepare yourself well before your treatment start. Your doctors and health care team will work with you to prepare for potential problems associated with your treatment

Preparing for chemo depends mainly on the drugs you will be given. Your doctor will instruct you on what to do. But please take note of the following

Prepare for your first treatment

Arrive at your treatment center well-rested. You can talk to your doctor or oncologist nurse how you should prepare. Eat light food before treatment as it may make you nauseous.

See a dentist

Chemotherapy drugs reduce your ability to fight infection. You may need to check your teeth to see if you have signs of infection. This will also reduce your risk of complications from treatment.

Plan for side effects

Remember to ask your doctor about likely side effects you may experience during and after your treatment. Your health care teams will always be available to provide help on how to deal with your side effects. They may recommend things to eat and exercise that can help. Ask for anti-nausea drugs to deal with nausea if you experience it.

Make caregiver plans

If you are to receive chemotherapy, you will need help. During treatment, help can come in form of transportation to and from the hospital, getting house chores done or other things done for you. Family or trusted friends can be your caregiver at this time. You can even talk to your health care team about what type of caregiving you will need at home.

Begin therapy or join support groups

It helps to prepare, talk to someone outside your cycle of friends and family. It will help to calm your fear about chemo treatment. This will help you gather helpful information that can help you deal with chemo treatment. Individual counseling can also help you work through your emotions.

Ask about fertility

Chemo might prevent your ability to have children. So if you desire to have children after chemo talk to your doctor about it before you start chemotherapy. That way they can devise a solution that can help you achieve your goal of having children.

Get a chemo bag

Chemo bags can contain helpful items such as warm clothing, healthy snacks, lip balm, and other things to keep you busy when getting your treatment.

Talk to your employer

if you work, you can talk to your employer about having a time off or reducing your workload. You could talk about having flexible hours or time off.

Freeze some food

Cooking during your chemo treatment may not be so easy. So try making some food ahead and freeze them. Also, get healthy food and fruit available at all times.

Changing eating habits can help with chemotherapy nausea

Be careful of other medicine

Before you use over-the-counter medicines or vitamins or herbs, check with your doctor. Since some of these drugs can affect the effectiveness of your chemo drugs.

Get help with finances

Before you start your chemo treatment, talk with your health care team about any financial support that might be available for you. This is important especially if your health insurance does not cover your whole treatment.

Take steps to prevent infection during your chemotherapy treatment

Ways to avoid infection

  • Avoid large crowds.
  • Maintain proper hygiene.
  • Wash raw fruits and veggies well before eating.
  • Avoid people who are sick.
  • Call your doctor immediately you experience an abnormal increase in your temperature.

Prepare your home

This may include doing house chores, laundry, grocery shopping or anything that make your treatment easy for you at home. Your first chemo treatment can be overwhelming but preparing may reduce some of your stress.

What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

Side effects occur because chemo drugs attack not only the cancer cells but also healthy cells. So, in the process of eliminating cancer cells, some fast-growing healthy cells in your body may be affected. Please remember that the damage done to healthy cells can reverse after treatment is complete. Different chemotherapy drugs have different side effects but there are some that are more common.

The list can seem overwhelming but it's very unlikely that you'll get all of them.

Common side effects are:

Signs of chemo brain fog - a short and long term chemotherapy side effect

Your doctor or specialist nurse will go through the side effects of each of the drugs you are taking and let you know which ones you are likely to get.

There are lots of ways to manage side effects so it's important to let your healthcare team know if you have them so they can help.

You should know that after chemo ends some side effects also goes away.

In summary

Chemotherapy is a very effective cancer treatment to consider and can go a long way in destroying your cancer cells, which is something that helps in your treatment

Your team will regularly monitor how effective your treatment is.  Always share with them information or concerns about your treatment with your health care team. Information and knowledge is key. Please don't be scared off by the side effects, your type of chemo might not have that many!

Thoughtful Gifts For People Having Chemotherapy

Further reading

30 Things You Should Know About Living With Cancer

What Is Metastatic Cancer? How Is It Treated? And How Do You Cope?

How To Help Someone Who Is Bedbound / Bedridden

Top 10 Items For A Chemotherapy Care Package

Chemotherapy Guides

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