What To Expect During Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of certain drugs to kill off cancerous or rapidly growing cells in an individual's body. Chemotherapy is utilized the most in the treatment of cancer because the disease is characterized by rapidly growing and multiplying cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy can also be used to treat non-cancerous conditions that require a bone marrow transplant, and in disorders where an individual's immune system is overactive. 

In terms of treatment for cancer, chemotherapy may be used to ease problematic symptoms, to cure cancer without the use of other treatments, to prepare a patient for other treatments, or after the use of other treatments to kill leftover cancer cells. Different types of chemotherapy drugs are used based on an individual's type and stage of cancer, overall health, personal preferences, and previous cancer treatments. Chemotherapy drugs may be administered through intravenous infusions, injection into a muscle, oral pill or capsule, and topical creams.

How The Treatment Works

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There are over one hundred different chemotherapy drugs that may be used to treat a patient's cancer independently or in combination with other treatments. These drugs work by targeting cells in different stages of the cell cycle. The cell cycle is the process a cell goes through to divide itself into two daughter cells. Because malignant cells multiply at a much faster rate than healthy cells, most of them are undergoing the process of division and multiplication at any given time in the progression of cancer. 

Certain chemotherapy drugs are able to target cells in a specific stage of the cell cycle, so specialized doctors are able to use a strategic combination of them to kill as many cancerous cells as possible. The main caveat of chemotherapy drugs is they are not able to distinguish if the cells within their target cell cycle stage are malignant or healthy. Carefully monitored and coordinated chemotherapy treatment overseen by a specialized physician will maintain a balance between the eradication of cancerous cells and the conservation of healthy cells.

Types Of Chemotherapy

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There are six main types of chemotherapy drugs, which are characterized by the different ways in which they work. Alkylating agents are chemotherapy drugs that work to damage the DNA of cells in all stages of the cell cycle to stop them from reproducing. Antimetabolites affect cells in the stage of the cell cycle where chromosomes are being copied by causing interference with the building blocks of DNA and RNA. Anti-tumor antibiotics are drugs that alter the DNA inside of cancerous cells to stop them from reproducing, or they disrupt enzymes that help with DNA copying during the cell cycle. 

Topoisomerase inhibitors are drugs that stop the activity of topoisomerases responsible for helping with the separation of DNA strands during the cell cycle. Mitotic inhibitors are chemotherapy drugs that work to stop the cell division process by stopping enzymes from producing proteins required for successful cell reproduction. Corticosteroids are considered a chemotherapy drug when they are used in the treatment of cancer. Each chemotherapy drug has a different set of possible side effects and differs in effectiveness for different types of cancer.

Preparing For The Treatment

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If a patient knows they will be undergoing chemotherapy, there are several things they can do to prepare for it. It is a good idea for these patients to visit the dentist and have any necessary work done prior to the start of chemotherapy. Females should have a PAP smear done before starting treatment to avoid false results. If an individual is going to lose their hair, they may want to find and purchase a wig ahead of time. Since some pre-treatment session medications given cause drowsiness, patients should arrange for transportation to and from their treatment sessions. 

For the same reasoning, patients undergoing chemotherapy should arrange for childcare ahead of time. Wearing comfortable clothes and eating a light snack prior to arriving at the physician's office for a chemotherapy session can also be also helpful. Depending on the type and stage of cancer being treated, a chemotherapy session may take anywhere from several minutes to several hours. Taking a book or crossword puzzle can help pass the time during longer treatment sessions.

Safety Precautions Related To Treatment

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Chemotherapy drugs are potent and toxic, so patients being treated with them need to take certain safety precautions to protect themselves and others around them. Most chemotherapy drugs are out of the body around forty-eight hours after treatment. These drugs exit a patient's body in multiple ways, making for anything that comes into contact with bodily fluids a hazard to young children and pets. When chemotherapy drugs are outside of a patient's body, they can cause irritation or harm to the skin of the patient undergoing treatment and others around them. An individual should close the toilet lid and flush it twice after using it during or within forty-eight hours of treatment. 

The patient should clean the toilet after each use while wearing disposable gloves. Any caregivers should wear two pairs of disposable gloves when coming in contact with any bodily fluids. Any linens or clothes that come into contact with bodily fluids within forty-eight hours after a chemotherapy session should be machine washed with normal laundry detergent. If any sanitary pads, adult diapers, or disposable underwear are being used, they should be discarded in doubled up plastic bags.

Side Effects Of Chemotherapy

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Since chemotherapy drugs cannot distinguish between malignant cells and healthy cells, they can have some harsh side effects. The healthy cells that are most vulnerable when a patient undergoes chemotherapy are the hair follicles, blood-forming cells within the bone marrow, cells in the mouth, cells in the reproductive system, and cells in the digestive tract. Certain chemotherapy drugs are more likely to cause damage to cells in the bladder, nervous system, heart, and lungs. 

The most common side effects of chemotherapy include the loss of hair, frequent infections, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, abnormal bleeding and bruising, anemia, changes in appetite, mouth sores, throat pain, tingling sensations, constipation, diarrhea, weight changes, and fertility issues. When a patient's cancer care team decides which chemotherapy drugs to use, they have to carefully consider their side effects. They also have to consider the interactions they may have with each other and any additional drugs the patient may be taking.

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Whitney Alexandra