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Chemotherapy is an aggressive form of chemical drug therapy meant to destroy rapidly growing cells in the body. It’s usually used to treat cancer, as cancer cells grow and divide faster than other cells. A doctor who specializes in cancer treatment is known as an oncologist. They’ll work with you to come up with your treatment plan. Chemotherapy is often used in combination with other therapies, such as surgery, radiation, or hormone therapy. This depends on:
the stage and type of cancer you have
your overall health
previous cancer treatments you’ve had
the location of the cancer cells
your personal treatment preferences
It’s considered a systemic treatment, which means it affects the entire body. While chemotherapy has been proven to effectively attack cancer cells, it can cause serious side effects that can severely impact your quality of life. You should weigh these side effects against the risk of not getting treatment when deciding if chemotherapy is right for you.
Why Chemotherapy Is Used
Chemotherapy is primarily used to:
lower the total number of cancer cells in your body
reduce the likelihood of cancer spreading
shrink tumor size
reduce current symptoms
If you’ve undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, such as a lumpectomy for breast cancer, your oncologist may recommend that you have chemotherapy to ensure that any lingering cancer cells are killed as well. Chemotherapy is also used to prepare you for other treatments. It could be used to shrink a tumor so it can be surgically removed or to prepare you for radiation therapy. In the case of late-stage cancer, chemotherapy may help relieve pain. Besides treatment for cancer, chemotherapy may be used to prepare people with bone marrow diseases for a bone marrow stem cell treatment and it may be used for immune system disorders. Doses much lower than those used to treat cancer can be used to help disorders in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is designed to kill cells that divide quickly. While cancer cells are these kinds of cells, other cells in your body divide quickly as well. Cells in the following areas can be adversely affected:
lining of your intestinal tract
Because of this, the side effects of chemotherapy include:
easy bruising and excessive bleeding
a loss of appetite
pain from nerve damage
Your doctor can help you manage these side effects with medications, lifestyle tips, and more.
Most side effects of chemotherapy subside when treatment is over. There’s the risk of long-lasting effects that may develop even years after the treatment, depending on the type of chemotherapy used. These effects could include damage to the:
There’s also the chance of developing a second cancer as a result of chemotherapy. Before beginning treatment, talk to your doctor about the possible risks and what symptoms you should be aware of. How to Prepare for Chemotherapy. As chemotherapy is a serious treatment for a serious condition, it’s important to plan ahead before beginning therapy. Your doctor and hospital staff will help you anticipate the potential problems associated with treatment.
Before you begin therapy, you’ll undergo a series of tests to help determine if you’re healthy enough for chemotherapy. This will include examinations of your heart and blood tests to determine the health of your liver. These tests can also help guide your doctor in deciding which types of chemotherapy to use in your treatment. Your doctor may also recommend that you visit your dentist before beginning treatment. As chemotherapy affects your body’s ability to heal, any infection in your gums or teeth could potentially spread throughout your body.
Your doctor may install a portif you’re getting chemotherapy through an intravenous (IV) line. A port is a device that’s implanted in your body, typically in your chest near your shoulder. This allows for easier access to your veins and is less painful. During each treatment, the IV will be inserted into your port.
Consider these preparation tips for chemotherapy treatment:
Make arrangements for work. Most people can work during chemotherapy, but you may want to be put on a lighter workload until you know what types of side effects you may be experiencing.
Prepare your house. Do laundry, stock up on groceries, and do other tasks you may be too weak to do after your first appointment
Arrange for any help you might need. Getting a friend or family member to help with household chores or caring for pets or children can be extremely beneficial.
Anticipate side effects. Ask your doctor what side effects you may experience and how to plan accordingly. If infertility could be a side effect and you want to conceive a child, you may want to store and freeze sperm, eggs, or fertilized embryos. You may want to purchase head covers or wigs if hair loss is likely.
Begin therapy or join a support group. Talking to someone outside of your family and circle of friends about what you’re going through can help you remain optimistic. It can also help calm any fears you may have about treatment.
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