Chemotherapy refers to the use of chemical agents to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs travel throughout the body to slow the growth of cancer cells or kill them.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given orally (pills or liquids) or by injection. Chemotherapy treatment is generally spaced out over an extended period (typically every three to four weeks) to gradually lower the number of tumor cells while allowing healthy cells to recover. Many patients receive their chemotherapy over a four- to 12- month period.
Combination chemotherapy combines two or more chemotherapy drugs that differ in both the ways they act and their side effects. This is done to achieve maximum tumor reduction with minimal side effects. Because tumor cells have different biological characteristics, combining drugs may effectively eliminate cancer cells’ resistance to a single drug.
Adjuvant chemotherapy is chemotherapy given when no clear evidence of cancer can be found, but certain factors (e.g., metastasis or spread to the lymph nodes) predict an increased risk of cancer recurrence.
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Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy drugs are designed to seek out and destroy rapidly-dividing cancer cells. However, they also affect fast-growing normal cells such as those in the gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, hair follicles, and reproductive system. Because of this, unwanted side effects of the treatment can and often do occur. Most side effects, however, are temporary.
Some of the more common side-effects of chemotherapy include:
- Nausea and vomiting: This is caused by several chemotherapy drugs, but can often be relieved and sometimes prevented by certain medications.
- Hair loss: This will occur in varying degrees, depending on which chemotherapy drugs and which schedule of drugs are received. However, the hair will grow back once treatment is finished.
- Fatigue and Infection: Chemotherapy can reduce the bone marrow’s ability to produce the normal amount of blood cells. This may put you at greater risk for anemia (if significantly fewer red blood cells are being produced), bleeding (if production of platelets is down), or infection (if the white cell count, particularly that of the neutrophils, is low). However, medications are available which can stimulate blood cell production.
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