Chemotherapy is a type of chemical treatment whereby drugs are used to destroy cancer cells. It is the most commonly used form of therapy to treat cancer.
As cancer cells grow and divide at a much faster rate than normal cells, chemotherapy works in keeping them from multiplying any further. However, healthy cells that typically grows more quickly, such as skin, intestines, bone marrow and hair cells, may also be damaged by the chemicals used in chemotherapy, leading to side effects.
What chemotherapy does
Depending on the type of cancer and how far along it is, chemotherapy helps in:
Curing – eradicate cancer cells completely from the body.
Slowing growth –chemotherapy may help in preventing cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.
Alleviating symptoms – also known as “palliative chemotherapy”, it may be used as a way to ease painful symptoms of cancer by killing some of the cancer cells.
Pre-treatment preparation – before other treatments like surgery can be performed, chemotherapy may be used to shrink tumours. This is also known as “neoadjuvant therapy”.
How chemotherapy is administered
There are several ways that chemotherapy drugs can be given to a patient. The method of administering chemotherapy drugs is dependant on the patient’s condition and other relevant factors. The patient and doctor should work together to decide on the most appropriate course of treatment.
The most common chemotherapy methods are by injection into the veins or through an IV, or in the form of a pill or liquid medication taken orally.
Injection: Chemotherapy drugs are given as a shot, injected into a muscle in the hip, arm, thigh or abdomen, or underneath the skin.
Oral medication: this medication may be in the form of a capsule, liquid or pill.
Intravenous (IV): Intravenous administered chemotherapy is when the drugs are injected straight into a vein.
Intra-arterial (IA): Intra-arterial chemotherapy is when drugs are injected into an artery that goes directly to the cancer.
Intraperitoneal (IP): Medication may be delivered into the peritoneum, or abdomen for cancers concerning the peritoneum area which includes the abdomen wall, intestines, liver, ovaries, and stomach. Intraperitoneal chemotherapy is performed during surgery or via a tube linked to a special port that has been put in by a doctor.
Directly to the cancer: Depending on where the tumour is located, chemotherapy can be given directly to the cancer or where it used to be, post-surgery. One example of how this works is that slow-dissolving disks can be placed close to a tumour during surgery which will break down over time and release chemotherapy drugs.
Topical cream: There are now creams or gels containing chemotherapy medication that is applied onto the skin. This is typically used for certain types of cancer of the skin.
How long it takes
There are several factors that determine how long a patient will have to undergo chemotherapy. These include the type of cancer the patient has, the progress of the cancer, the objective of chemotherapy treatment, the type of treatment to be taken and how the patient responds to it.
Chemotherapy is typically administered in cycles whereby there are periods of rest following treatment. This rest will allow the body to regenerate new, normal cells. For instance, after a dose of chemotherapy, there will be a 3-week recovery period. This cycle is referred to as a treatment cycle, and a course of chemotherapy consists of several of such cycles.
Preparation for chemotherapy varies with each patient as it depends on the type of chemotherapy and drugs that they will be administered. The doctor will inform and prepare their patients for chemotherapy and the following may be advised:
Tests and procedures
In order to check if the kidney and liver are functioning well, blood tests will be ordered. There will also be tests to determine the patient’s heart health. All these tests will determine if the body is healthy enough for chemotherapy, otherwise the doctor will have to decide on an alternative course of chemotherapy that better suits the patient’s needs.
Installation of device
For patients due to undergo intravenous chemotherapy, surgery may be required in order to implant a device (catheter, port or pump) into a large vein through which chemotherapy medication can be administered. This device is usually implanted in the chest and the IV will be inserted into the device during chemotherapy treatment for easier access to the vein. This will also make it less painful for the patient each time they undergo chemotherapy.
A visit to the dentist may be recommended by the doctor. This is to check the patient’s teeth and gums for signs of infection which may lead to complications during chemotherapy. This is because certain forms of chemotherapy drugs may affect the body’s healing abilities and the capacity to fight infections. It is advised that patients treat the gum and/or teeth infection before undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
The patient’s progress during chemotherapy will be closely monitored by their doctor and treatment team. Tests such as scans and blood tests will be taken so that the doctor can manage and adjust the patient’s treatment accordingly. Patients are also advised to share as much as they are able to with their doctors on possible side effects that they may be experiencing so that modifications can be made to the treatment methods, if necessary.