What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a form of cancer treatment which uses drugs to kill dividing cancer cells. There are a number of drugs used for chemotherapy and depending on the stage of cancer at which the drugs are begun, chemotherapy may be aimed at curing cancer, slowing down its progress, or easing its symptoms.
How is Chemotherapy administered?
To achieve best results, chemotherapy would be administered over a period of time specified by a cancer specialist, or oncologist. The oncologist would draw out a plan for how long the treatment would last and how many treatment sessions the patient would have.
The doctor would also plan a rest period where the patient would be off chemotherapy to enable the body recover from the effects of the cancer drugs.
Depending on the type of cancer in question and the stage it is in, one course of treatment may range from one dose for a day followed by a week of rest or daily dose for a few weeks before the rest period.
Certain blood tests would be conducted before commencing and during chemotherapy. The essential tests are liver function tests and full blood counts. If these are deranged, chemotherapy would be delayed or discontinued until these indices return to normal.
Depending on the type of cancer being treated, the cancer drugs may be administered to the patient orally as tablets, or injected into the veins or delivered through an infusion or a pump. There are some ambulant pumps which the patient can wear for a long time while still performing their day-to-day activities.
Topical chemotherapy includes creams and ointments which are applied on the skin to combat certain types of cancer including skin cancer.
How does chemotherapy work?
The body grows through the programmed and controlled division of cells, one cell dividing into two, ultimately leading to growth of tissue. When cancer develops in a tissue or organ, cells divide uncontrollably, growing such that the tissue assumes an abnormally large size and takes up much more space in the body than it should.
Chemotherapy kill cancer cells by impairing their division, triggering their programmed cell death, and inhibiting the hormones that promote their growth.
The effectiveness of chemotherapy depends on certain factors including the type, location, and stage of the cancer being treated, as well as the patient’s age and general health status.
Why is chemotherapy done?
Besides the fact that chemotherapy could lead to a complete cure of cancer, it could also be used as neoadjuvant therapy, which is to shrink tumour size before removal by surgery. In these cases, it could be combined with radiotherapy.
Chemotherapy could also serve as adjuvant therapy to mop up cancer cells after it has been removed by surgery. This serves to prevent or delay a return of the cancer.
In advanced stages of cancer, chemotherapy may be employed for palliative measures, to ease the symptoms and delay progression of the disease.
What risks does chemotherapy pose?
Chemotherapy does not distinguish cancer cells from healthy ones, so it may impair division of normal cells causing adverse effects such as hair loss, reduced white and red blood cell counts, hearing loss, loss of libido, and infertility.