The thought of having chemotherapy frightens many people. But knowing what chemotherapy is, how it works, and what to expect can often help calm your fears.
Chemotherapy (chemo) is a type of treatment that includes a medication or combination of medications to treat cancer.
Because chemo drugs work well to kill fast-dividing cells, doctors sometimes use them to fight other conditions.
It can be used to:
- Prepare for a bone marrow stem cell transplant if you have a bone marrow disease
- Treat an overactive immune system — your body’s defense against germs — in diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
For cancer patients, there are many different types of chemotherapy medication, but they all work in much the same way. Depending on the type of cancer you have, you may be treated with one medicine (monotherapy) or with a combination of medicines (combination therapy).
How chemotherapy is administered
- Injections in your arm, thigh, hip, leg, or belly
- Through an infusion port, a device put underneath your skin that connects to a vein
- A cream or gel that you rub on your skin
- Pills, capsules, or liquids that you swallow
Why you may need chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is used if a cancer has spread or if there’s a risk that it will. There are three main goals for chemotherapy in cancer treatment;
Chemotherapy circulates throughout your body in the bloodstream. So it can treat cancer cells almost anywhere in the body.
This is done to reduce the risk of the cancer returning after radiotherapy or surgery
If cure is not possible, the goal may be to control the disease.
Chemo is used to shrink tumours and/or stop the cancer from growing and spreading to other parts of the body.
This can help the cancer patient feel better and live longer.
3. Palliative care
When the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and a cure may not be possible, chemotherapy may be used to relieve the symptoms and slow it down.
This is known as palliative chemotherapy.
The goal may be to improve the quality of life or help the person feel better. For instance, chemo may be used to help shrink a tumour that’s causing pain or pressure.
The medicines used in chemotherapy can’t distinguish between fast-growing cancer cells and other types of fast-growing cells, such as blood cells, skin cells and the cells inside your stomach.
This means that most chemotherapy medications have a negative effect on the body’s cells, causing problems including:
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Mouth sores or ulcers
- Increased risk of infection
- Easy bruising and bleeding.
- Hair loss
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of appetite
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