Glenn Ellis

*Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells (including leukemia and lymphomas). There are over 50 different chemotherapy drugs and some are given on their own, but often several drugs may be combined (this is known as combination chemotherapy).

The type of treatment you are given for your cancer depends on many things, particularly the type of disease you have, where in the body it started, what the cancer cells look like under the microscope and how far they have spread, if at all.

Chemotherapy may be used alone to treat some types of cancer. Sometimes it can be used together with other types of treatment such as surgery, radiotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these.

Chemotherapy drugs interfere with the ability of a cancer cell to divide and reproduce. As the drugs are carried in the blood, they can reach cancer cells all over the body. Healthy cells can repair the damage caused by chemotherapy but cancer cells cannot and so they eventually die.

Chemotherapy has to be carefully planned so that it destroys more and more of the cancer cells during the course of treatment, but does not destroy the normal cells and tissues.

There are several reasons why a doctor may decide to have a person consider chemotherapy treatment:

  • To cure cancer— with some types of cancer chemotherapy is likely to destroy all the cancer cells and cure the disease.
  • To reduce the chance of a cancer coming back — chemotherapy may be given after surgery or radiotherapy so that if any cancer cells remain but are too small to see they can be destroyed by the chemotherapy.
  • To shrink a cancer and prolong life — if a cure is not possible, chemotherapy may be given to shrink and control a cancer, or reduce the number of cancer cells, and try to prolong a good quality of life.

Now, here is the part that causes most people to view chemotherapy as an undesirable option.

Yes, there are potential side effects, and before you or someone you love decides against it, make sure you fully understand the side effects. Then, and only then, can you weigh the pros and cons as they relate to a specific case.

Chemotherapy can reduce the number of blood cells produced by the bone marrow. Bone marrow is a spongy material that fills the bones and contains stem cells, which normally develop into the three different types of blood cell.

The cells produced by bone marrow:

  1. White blood cells are essential for fighting infections.
  2. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin to carry oxygen round the body.
  3. Platelets help to clot the blood and prevent bleeding.

If the number of white cells in your blood is low you will be more likely to get an infection as there are fewer white cells to fight off bacteria.

Some chemotherapy drugs can cause feelings of sickness (nausea), or actually being sick (vomiting). Many people do not have any sickness with their chemotherapy. There are now very effective treatments to prevent and control sickness and this is much less of a problem than it was in the past. If you do feel sick, it will usually start from a few minutes to several hours after the chemotherapy, depending on the drugs given. The sickness may last for a few hours or, rarely, for several days.

Some chemotherapy drugs can reduce your appetite for a while. Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the lining of the digestive system and this may cause diarrhea for a few days. More rarely, some chemotherapy drugs can cause constipation.

If you have any diarrhea or constipation, or are worried about the effects of chemotherapy on your digestive system, see your doctor to discuss any problems you may have.

Chemotherapy can cause your taste to change; food may taste more salty, bitter or metallic. Normal taste will come back after the chemotherapy treatment finishes.

Hair loss is one of the most well-known side effects of chemotherapy. Some drugs cause no hair loss or the amount of hair lost is so slight it is hardly noticeable. If hair loss happens it usually starts within a few weeks of beginning treatment, although very occasionally it can start within a few days. Underarm, body and pubic hair may be lost as well. Some drugs also cause loss of the eyelashes and eyebrows. If you do lose your hair as a result of chemotherapy, it will grow back once you have finished your treatment.

Some drugs can affect your skin. These may cause your skin to become dry or slightly discolored and may be made worse by swimming, especially if there is chlorine in the water. Any rashes should be reported to your doctor. The drugs may also make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, during and after the treatment. Protect your skin from the sun by wearing a hat, covering skin with loose clothing and using sunscreen cream on any exposed areas.

Your nails may grow more slowly and you may notice white lines appearing across them. False nails or nail varnish can disguise white lines. Your nails may also become more brittle and flaky.

Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the nerves in the hands and feet. This can cause tingling or numbness, or a sensation of pins and needles. This is known as peripheral neuropathy. Some drugs can cause feelings of anxiety and restlessness, dizziness, sleeplessness or headaches. Some people also find it hard to concentrate on anything.

Some of our chemotherapy medications are derived from herbs. For example, the Vinca family – Vincristine, Vinblastine — are derived from the herb periwinkle. Taxol is also from a plant/tree in the northern rain forest. For those on chemotherapy, medication, herbs are not without some side effects. It is therefore always very important to keep your medical team informed of what supplements you are taking.

This column is meant for informational purposes only, and is not intended to replace the proper medical advice from your doctor.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

Glenn Ellis, author of Which Doctor?, lectures and is an active contributor to the literature nationally and internationally on health related topics, including community health, disparities, and health promotion.

For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com