More than half of the people diagnosed with cancer yearly will receive chemotherapy. Treating cancer with chemotherapy reverses the spread of the disease by killing cancer cells or reducing the severity of its symptoms.
What is chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a medical process that uses powerful drugs to attack and destroy cancerous cells quickly dividing in the body. Chemotherapy may be used both primary and adjunctive therapy in treating various forms of cancer.
Chemotherapy may cause side effects like nausea, hair loss and fatigue due to its direct impact on healthy cells. Yet chemotherapy remains an effective tool in fighting cancer; further research aims at optimizing its performance while decreasing patient side effects.
How Does Chemotherapy Work?
Doctors have over 100 different drugs available when treating cancer patients with chemotherapy. Traditionally, medical professionals administered chemotherapy via injection or intravenous infusion. However, recent medical advances have developed chemotherapy drugs that patients can manage through pills or liquids.
There are many ways to use chemotherapy in cancer treatment. The most popular method is to create drugs that attack the DNA in cells so they self-destruct. For example, methotrexate treats breast, head, neck, and some blood cancers. It’s effective because it blocks a key enzyme that is a building block for DNA.
Other chemotherapy drugs bind themselves to DNA to lock the double helix, preventing it from unwinding and creating new copies.
What Can Chemotherapy Do?
Doctors use chemotherapy to treat cancer patients, but the expected outcome depends on the type of cancer and its progress. The medical industry uses chemotherapy to create a variety of outcomes.
In some patients, chemotherapy can destroy enough cancer cells that are no longer detectable. However, this is no guarantee that cancer will not grow back at some point.
In cases with no chance of eradicating cancer, chemotherapy helps control its spread to other areas of the body and slow the growth of the existing cancer cells. Sometimes, doctors will use chemotherapy treatments to target specific tumors that may be causing pain.
The goal is to shrink the tumors so the patient has comfort. However, in many of these cases, the tumors will persist.
How does chemotherapy work to treat cancer?
Chemotherapy works to treat cancer by targeting and disrupting the growth and division of rapidly multiplying cancer cells. Here’s how it typically works:
- Purpose: Chemotherapy fights cancer by using powerful drugs.
- Cell Growth Control: It stops fast-growing cancer cells from multiplying.
- Administration: Drugs are given through IV or as pills, reaching cancer cells throughout the body.
- Mechanism: Chemotherapy disrupts how cancer cells divide and grow.
- Side Effects: Some healthy cells may be affected, causing side effects like hair loss and nausea.
- Combination Therapy: Multiple drugs are often used together for better effectiveness.
- Monitoring: Doctors track progress with tests.
- Treatment Cycles: Chemotherapy is given in cycles with breaks for recovery.
- Balancing Act: Doctors customize treatment to minimize side effects while maximizing effectiveness.
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How Do Doctors Use Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy can treat cancer by itself, but it’s usually in conjunction with other treatments. Biological therapy is when medical professionals inject living material such as vaccines, antibodies, or bacteria into the cancer cells to kill them.
Radiation therapy delivers radioactive particles to cancer cells. Physicians use a machine to target specific areas outside the body in many treatments. Other ways of irradiating cancer cells involve putting radioactive material inside the body.
Surgery attempts to remove as much of the cancerous material as possible physically. In these cases, chemotherapy shrinks the tumorous cells to a size that makes the operation possible (neoadjuvant chemotherapy). Visit our article about chemotherapy side effects.
How do you know if chemo is working?
Determining if chemotherapy is working involves several key steps and assessments:
- Imaging and Scans: Doctors often use imaging techniques such as CT scans, MRI scans, or PET scans to monitor the size and characteristics of the tumor(s). A reduction in tumor size or stabilization of its growth can be a positive sign that chemotherapy is working.
- Blood Tests: Blood tests can reveal important information, including tumor markers and blood cell counts. Changes in these markers, such as a decrease in tumor marker levels or improvements in blood counts, can indicate treatment success.
- Physical Examination: Doctors will conduct physical examinations to assess the overall health of the patient and look for signs of improvement, such as reduced pain or swelling.
- Symptom Management: Improvement or resolution of cancer-related symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, or difficulty breathing, can be a positive indication of treatment efficacy.
- Biopsies: In some cases, doctors may perform additional biopsies during treatment to assess changes in the cancer tissue at a cellular level. A decrease in the aggressiveness or activity of cancer cells can indicate treatment success.
- Response Evaluation: Oncologists categorize treatment responses into different types, including:
- Complete Response: No evidence of cancer remains.
- Partial Response: Tumor size has decreased by a significant amount.
- Stable Disease: The tumor neither grows nor shrinks significantly.
- Progressive Disease: The tumor continues to grow despite treatment.
How long does chemo take to work?
The time it takes for chemotherapy to work can vary widely depending on several factors:
- Timing Varies: Chemotherapy’s effectiveness varies widely, taking weeks to months.
- Factors at Play: Cancer type, stage, treatment plan, and individual response influence the timeline.
- Regular Communication: Keep in touch with your healthcare team for progress updates and treatment adjustments.
- Patience Is Key: Results may not be immediate, so be patient while waiting for changes in tumor size or symptoms.
What is the 7-day rule in chemotherapy?
The “7-day rule” in chemotherapy typically refers to a guideline related to the administration of certain chemotherapy drugs. While the specifics can vary depending on the chemotherapy regimen and the patient’s individual treatment plan, here is a general explanation of what the 7-day rule might entail:
- Dosing Schedule: Some chemotherapy drugs are administered in cycles that include both treatment days and rest days. The 7-day rule often applies to the scheduling of these cycles.
- Continuous Treatment: In a typical chemotherapy cycle, a patient might receive chemotherapy drugs for a certain number of days (e.g., 5 days) followed by a period of rest (e.g., 2 days).
- Maintenance of Drug Levels: The 7-day rule helps maintain a consistent level of chemotherapy drugs in the patient’s system. It ensures that there is no prolonged gap in treatment that could allow cancer cells to recover and resume growth.
- Minimizing Side Effects: This schedule can also help manage the side effects of chemotherapy. Giving the body a break allows it to recover and reduces the severity of side effects that may accumulate with consecutive days of treatment.
- Optimizing Efficacy: The goal is to strike a balance between providing enough chemotherapy to be effective against cancer while allowing the body to recover between cycles.
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Frequently asked questions
Can I work during chemotherapy?
Dependence upon chemotherapy treatment depends upon individual circumstances; many continue working while receiving it, although side effects may make this difficult. Discuss your specific situation with healthcare team and employer to make an informed decision; they may advise taking time off, cutting hours back, or working remotely during treatment.
Why does chemotherapy cause side effects?
Chemotherapy drugs target rapidly dividing cells, such as cancerous ones but can also damage healthy ones that divide quickly, leading to side effects like nausea, hair loss and fatigue. Each person responds differently; medications and supportive care may help manage these side effects more effectively.
What does "remission" mean?
Remission refers to when cancer no longer detectable or causing symptoms, making a treatment success, but doesn’t always guarantee cure. There are different kinds of remission, from complete (no evidence of cancer) and partial (reduced cancer cells) cases to partial (shrinkage of cancer cells).
What happens if I miss a chemotherapy treatment?
A: Missing chemotherapy treatments can have a dramatic impact on its effectiveness. Most chemotherapy regimens are carefully scheduled in order to maximize benefits; should you miss one, contact your healthcare team immediately so they can adjust your plan or reschedule missed sessions or suggest alternative approaches.
Does chemotherapy require a special diet?
No single diet fits all when it comes to chemotherapy treatment, but proper nutrition is absolutely necessary. Because chemotherapy may impair appetite and digestion, eating plenty of fluids, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins is highly advised. Speak with a registered dietitian about tailoring an individual plan that suits your specific needs.
How painful is chemotherapy?
Pain levels during chemotherapy treatment vary considerably. While chemotherapy itself typically doesn’t cause acute discomfort, its side effects such as mouth sores or neuropathy may be intensely painful. There are various pain management strategies, including medications and lifestyle modifications available to alleviate symptoms; any pain should be communicated to your healthcare team for support and treatment.