Chemotherapy: Everything You Need to Know About the Treatment
Chemotherapy, or “chemo”, can be a frightening word. We often imagine someone undergoing chemo being frail and pallid, with a weakened body under a warm sweater, and wearing a scarf to protect a bald head. But thanks to chemo, that patient in our imagination has a chance to live to become strong again, grow a full head of hair, and laugh with delight as they tickle a grandchild. Of course, everyone will have a different experience, with some patients making only small changes to their appearance and daily routine. Whether a patient is fighting breast cancer, cervical cancer or prostate cancer, everyone undergoing chemotherapy has hope.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a treatment for cancer using one or more specialized drugs to prevent cancerous cells from dividing and spreading through the body. Unlike surgery or radiation, which are frequently used to remove or kill localized cancer cells, chemotherapy usually works throughout the entire body, reaching cancer cells that haven’t even been detected by medical testing.
Chemo may be given for reasons other than curing the cancer. Depending on the type of cancer, its stage, and the person’s overall health, reasons for giving chemotherapy might be:
–to wipe out the cancer and prevent it from returning.
–to control the cancer by preventing it from spreading further.
–to relieve pain by shrinking tumors.
–to shrink tumors prior to surgery or radiation.
How is chemotherapy given?
Chemo is usually administered by the following methods:
–Intravenous access (IV): A thin, short catheter is inserted into a vein in the arm or hand at each treatment. Intravenous administration is a simple technique familiar to most of us. However, because some chemo medications can damage the small veins in the forearms and hands, intravenous administration is not always possible.
–Central venous access: A flexible, longer catheter or a semi-permanent port is implanted once into a larger vein in the neck, upper arm or chest. Depending on the method used, access is provided for a period of time ranging from weeks to years.
–Oral administration: A pill or liquid is taken by mouth.
–Directly to the area affected by the cancer. A temporary or permanent catheter is placed in the region being treated, for example, in the spinal cord or ventricle for some cancers of the central nervous system, in the abdominal cavity for some cancers of the abdomen, or in the bladder for some bladder cancers.
Side effects during chemo treatments
Chemotherapy drugs are toxic to both malignant and normal cells. Because of the damage to normal, healthy cells, side effects of chemotherapy can include:
–fatigue or exhaustion
–mouth and throat sores
–nausea and vomiting
–decreased ability to fight infection
The healthcare team closely monitors the patient’s response to the dose and frequency of the drugs and makes changes as needed. If side effects are impacting the patient’s ability to withstand the treatment, the number of days or weeks between treatments might be increased.
Side effects can often be well-managed through a variety of traditional and complementary or alternative methods. Depending on the treatment facility, these may include:
–“Magic mouthwash” to coat and numb ulcerated areas of the mouth and throat.
–Medications to help with fatigue, immunity, or blood clotting.
–Medical nutrition therapy
–Physical or occupational therapy
What should I ask the doctor before I start chemotherapy?
First, you should make sure that you understand the risks and benefit of the chosen treatment. If you are not fully comfortable that the chosen treatment is the most appropriate one for you, please ask more questions.
It is often helpful and wise to seek at least one or two additional opinions on your treatment before making the decision. We also suggest that you bring a friend or relative with you to appointments who can take some notes. They also might think of questions that you overlooked.
–What side effects can I expect?
–Is there is an alternative choice of treatment? If so, is that treatment equally effective? What are the expected side effects?
–Are there any ways to prevent side effects from happening or to minimize them?
–How will I know if a side effect is a medical emergency rather than an expected side effect?
–Is someone from your practice always available after-hours if I have a problem or an urgent question? How can I reach that person?
–Will I be able to continue working at my job? Should I ask my boss to re-assign some of my work?
–Will I need someone to drive me to and from treatment or will I be able to drive?
–Can I bring someone to keep me company when I am receiving a chemo infusion? How long will each infusion take?
–What should I expect to feel during the infusion?
–Will I need to have an implanted port or catheter?
What else can I do to prepare for chemotherapy?
–If you will be unable to cook during treatment, ask friends or relatives to prepare meals or arrange to have food delivered. If receiving adequate nutrition is likely to become a problem, discuss it with your doctor.
–Have people who can help with childcare if needed.
–Arrange for someone to clean the house on a regular basis, and to tend the garden if needed.
–If you are concerned about hair loss, consider buying a wig or having a wig made from your hair in advance. You can also ask if you will be able to use a “cold cap”, which can sometimes (but not always) minimize or prevent hair loss.
–Accept that you may have some limitations during your treatment. Most people experience some fatigue. Listen to your body and rest when you are fatigued.
–Connect with other people who have gone through the same or similar treatment – they may have some helpful advice for managing side effects and they will understand what you are going through.
–The American Cancer Society website, www.cancer.org, is an excellent resource for more information.
How Halza can help
The Halza app allows you to securely store, track and share your medical data with your doctors and loved ones. Upload your tumor marker tests, blood tests, biopsies, mammogram results and more onto the app to have all your data in one place for your convenience. Schedule chemotherapy session reminders and other necessary appointments with Halza and receive the support you need from those who care about you.