What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a medicine which kills any fast-growing cancer cells that are dividing and reproducing out of control. Cancerous cells replicate and divide at a faster rate than normal cells. Chemotherapy tries to control this abnormal behavior by killing such cells. This treatment also attacks the healthy cells of one’s body, which is why cancer patients undergoing treatment usually experience side effects such as nausea, tiredness and hair loss.
Chemotherapy medication is given directly into a vein. The drugs circulate around the body in the bloodstream and kill cancerous cells. This procedure is referred to as intravenous (IV) chemotherapy and is also known as having an infusion therapy (via drip). In this procedure, a bag of fluid with a tube is inserted into the vein of an arm or into the chest vein of the patient. The entire process of chemotherapy can take variable time depending upon the exact nature of cancer and type of protocol used. The procedure may take a few minutes to several hours or sometimes more than a day.
Other ways chemotherapy can be administered include tablets or some forms of long-term treatment.
Cancer chemotherapy treatment is a cyclical process. The cycle begins with a number of chemotherapy sessions for the patient followed by a period of recovery time with no treatment. The number of cycles largely depends on the type of blood cancer, the medical protocol used and drugs that have been prescribed by the doctors.
Chemotherapy for Blood Cancer
Depending on the category and progression of blood cancer, one can be administered chemotherapy either by oral or syringe forms.
Chemotherapy treatments are usually given in cycles — and are followed by resting periods for the patient. The resting periods help the patient’s body to recover and build up strength.
Doctors sometimes give chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy and steroids to control blood cancer and tumors. Some treatments combine chemotherapy with stem cell transplants for replenishing blood-forming cells that have been destroyed by chemotherapy.
How does chemotherapy treat cancer?
Chemotherapy is used in different ways at different times to eradicate cancer from the body effectively.
- Patients may undergo neoadjuvant chemotherapy before surgery or radiation therapy to reduce the size of tumors.
- Patients may undergo adjuvant chemotherapy post-surgery or radiation therapy to destroy and kill any remaining cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy can be administered as a stand-alone treatment, particularly when treating Leukemia, Lymphoma or Myeloma.
- It is also used to control recurrent cancer – a recurrence occurs when there is a replication of residual cancer cells.
How long does chemotherapy take?
Chemotherapy treatment comes with a specific time duration, like 6 months or a year. In a few cases however, patients may get the treatment for as long as it works.
It is important to know that drugs when used on an everyday basis result in certain side effects. Doctors usually prescribe these drugs with routine breaks, so one’s body has the time to rest and recover before the next treatment. This lets healthy cells heal in the body.
For example, one might be given a dose of chemotherapy on day one and then have a 3 week recovery time before repeating the treatment. Each 3-week period is called a treatment cycle and several cycles make up a course of chemotherapy. A course usually lasts 3 months or more.
Some cancers are treated with less recovery time between cycles. This is called a dose-dense schedule. It can make chemotherapy more effective against some cancers, but comes with an increased risk of side effects. Always talk with your health care team about the schedule that is best suited for you.
Chemotherapy Precautions for Blood Cancer Patients
A few changes of general everyday habits like consumption of well cooked food, drinking boiled instead of cold water, maintaining social distance and wearing of masks are certain steps that help in faster recovery after a chemotherapy session. Chemotherapy is now a standard of care for blood cancer. Like any other intensive treatment, this also has its own fair share of complications.
Healthcare providers try their very best to minimize any side effects, especially for those patients who are at higher risk:
- Older patients, whose bodies may not be able to handle intense chemotherapy rounds
- Pregnant women, who must undergo treatment (ideally) after delivery or receive certain medication in certain trimesters
- Young patients, who may show greater resilience than adults but are still growing