Whether you’ve just been recently diagnosed with cancer, or you are a loved one trying to support someone who is going through their cancer battle, you may be familiar with the term “chemotherapy”. It is a common cancer treatment that doctors often recommend, but it’s not surprising that people still have a number of questions about it. As such, we provide a quick guide below to help you understand better about this treatment.
1. How does chemotherapy work?
Chemotherapy does its job by killing cells that are dividing rapidly. In most cases, an intravenous (IV) drip will be inserted into a vein in the patient’s arm to deliver the treatment drugs into the bloodstream. Known as systemic treatment, this targets cancer cells in the organs and tissues. For local chemotherapy, it is delivered directly to the cancer. The patient may also receive oral chemotherapy in the form of capsules or pills that should be consumed daily.
2. Why do side effects happen?
Normal cells, such as hair follicles, blood cells, and cells inside organs, also divide rapidly due to chemotherapy. However, normal cells can repair the damage and recover. This means, fortunately, most side effects are temporary. Chemotherapy affects patients in different ways, which can depend on the type of chemotherapy the patient is going through and their pre-treatment fitness. Thus, it is important for the patient to speak to the doctor regarding the specific side effects they should look out for.
3. How long does chemotherapy last?
The duration and frequency of the chemotherapy depends on the type of cancer the patients have, the treatment drugs that are used, and whether there are any side effects present. In general, people can have chemotherapy over 3 to 6 months.
There are different treatments like maintenance and palliative chemotherapy which may continue for many months or years to control the cancer or prevent the cancer from coming back. This can be discussed in detail with the patient’s treatment team. For example, in stage IV lung cancer treatments, chemotherapy is typically the main treatment while radiation is used to relieve symptoms.
4. Will hair loss occur?
Most of the time, chemotherapy will result in some thinning of the hair. There are a few types that may also cause complete hair loss. As such, some patients choose to use a hat, wig or headscarf to cover their head. The hair typically starts to grow again in a few months after the treatment ends.
5. Are there certain activities that should be avoided during treatment?
Depending on the diagnosis, specific treatment and blood counts, there may be certain activities that patients can and cannot participate in during the treatment. For example, light exercises can be helpful to manage fatigue and improve wellbeing. Work also provides a healthy sense of purpose for patients, however this depends on whether the patient’s work commitments are not taxing and strenuous.
While the list of questions is non-exhaustive, we hope this provides a good starting point for you to learn more about chemotherapy. It can be overwhelming to understand what the treatment is doing and all the side effects that come with it – but our cancer treatment team will always be contactable and by your side, or your loved ones, to discuss the available options and clarify any doubts.
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