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Chemotherapy: How it Affects the Body


Cancer is a disease where abnormal cells multiply at an uncontrollable rate in one part of the body. It can start anywhere in the body, and these abnormal cells spread, forming clumps called tumors. The tumor starts to form when a genetically altered cell begins to form. It will then reproduce too much (which is called hyperplasia), and then the additional “offspring” of this mutated cell will become “abnormal in shape and in orientation” [1]. Some tumors do not spread, and these are called benign, while cancerous tumors can spread.


There are over 100 different types of cancer, and their different names usually come from the organ it originates from. The most common categories of cancer include carcinoma, sarcoma, leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, etc. Although there are these different types of cancers, each with their different side effects, cancer, overall, can be very deadly to the person who contracts it.


Chemotherapy is a method doctors use with cancer patients to eliminate or inhibit the spread of cancer cells within the body, and it is becoming the main method to stop cancer in its later stages. Chemotherapy has also been modified and changed over the course of many years, so there is a very large improvement in survival for the patient. Although chemotherapy is a popular way of fighting off cancer, it can also affect the normal cells of the body in a negative way, which can lead to different and serious side effects. So, what exactly is chemotherapy, and how does it work? Coined by Paul Ehrlich (a German chemist), chemotherapy is “the use of chemicals to treat disease” [2]. It can also be used in different stages of cancer. This can include:


● If the patient is unable to have surgery to remove their tumor

● Before tumor removal surgery, to try and shrink the tumor, making it easier to remove

● After surgery to eliminate any cancer cells that may remain

● In combination with radiation therapy

● To relieve any symptoms of cancer in the advanced stages


The drugs that are used in chemotherapy can be administered through the following methods: “oral (PO), intravenous (IV), subcutaneous (SC), intramuscular (IM), intrathecal (IT)” [3]. This means that the drugs are given to the patient intravenously (through a vein), orally (by mouth), or topically (applied to the skin). The drugs used are designed to specifically target cells that are rapidly dividing, but this means that they also can target those in the bone marrow, hair follicles, and digestive tract. Unfortunately, some of the chemicals that are used to facilitate chemotherapy, can be “toxic to the liver or kidneys,” which can eventually lead the organ to not function properly or fail to function completely. This can also happen to the lungs and to the heart.


Chemotherapy also can weaken one's immune system, which means that the patient is more susceptible to getting infections. Chemotherapy can come with many different toxic side effects like “myelosuppression, mucositis, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, alopecia, fatigue, sterility, infertility, and infusion reactions” [3]. These are just from toxicities contained within the drugs that are used during chemotherapy. It is tricky for someone who is going through chemotherapy because the treatment is meant to get rid of cancerous cells, but the drugs affect all cells in the body. They cannot pick out which cells are good, and which are bad.


So, how can someone go through chemotherapy and manage some of the side effects that come from putting these chemicals into the body? For most, this will include many different types of medications and supplements. This is true for symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, neurotoxicity, diarrhea, etc. Mucositis is when your mouth becomes inflamed, but this can also occur in your gut. In order to manage this, a patient can use “magic mouthwash” or “lemon glycerin swabs,” or else it can become difficult to talk and eat without pain [3]. For fatigue, it is important to try and manage exercise and sleep quality. It may also help to participate in “behavioral therapies such as relaxation” [3].


There is also the use of “complementary and alternative medicine (CAM),” “mind-body practices (MBPs),” and “natural products (NPs)” [5]. This is a more controversial way of managing the effects of chemotherapy, solely because not enough research has been done to validate the positive effects these methods may have on patients. However, it is a common way for patients to “attempt to take control of their health as well as to increase their quality of life” [5].


If these methods were properly explained to patients without bias from medical practitioners, it could be extremely helpful to patients seeking something extra to help their chemotherapy process. Some patients who have already used this method have reported positive effects, such as “less depressed mood” [5]. This is reported with MBPs, where therapy is recommended to “increase patients’ sense of well-being and wholeness help in healing the body's inner strength and reducing stress, even though they may feel healed but not cured” [5].


Unfortunately, physical side effects that can be caused by chemotherapy can also lead to psychological side effects. Fatigue is a side effect that can “disrupt daily activities on a continual basis,” especially paired with the stresses of having cancer, and going through chemotherapy as a whole [4]. Patients, during the process, may feel like they have to stay strong in order to get through the different treatments and to reassure family members. This can lead to the suppression of emotions, and ultimately, depression. It can be common for something like this to happen, especially because cancer can happen and spread so fast. Unfortunately, not everyone has a stable support group.


Communication is very important during this process, as it can help the patient to stay connected with loved ones. It may be common for patients to isolate themselves because they either don’t want to worry about their loved ones, or they don’t want to be treated differently by those they are closest to. It is a very difficult situation to be in, so it’s not hard to imagine that there would be a lot of back and forth on whether the patient would want the family to see them in a certain state or not. It is also important that the patient has constant communication with their doctor. Oftentimes, patients do not get to voice their concerns to their practitioner, and so it is not properly communicated whether the treatment is working, or not. Remember, chemotherapy is not for everyone!


It is important to have regular checkups and to go to the doctor if you’re feeling something out of the ordinary. Spotting cancer in the beginning stages makes a huge difference when it comes to the treatment process. For those who spot it in the beginning, chemotherapy may not be necessary at all, and for that reason, it is important to look out for any warning signs and to avoid any products that contain cancer-causing materials. It is also important to make fighting cancer a team effort. It’s always best to have the support you need, and not just for emotional support, but to help monitor nutrition, safety, etc.


References:

1. Weinberg, R. A. (1996). How cancer arises. Scientific American, 275(3), 62-70.


2. DeVita Jr, V. T., & Chu, E. (2008). A history of cancer chemotherapy. Cancer research, 68(21), 8643-8653.


3. Amjad, M. T. (2021, November 17). Cancer chemotherapy. StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved February 20, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK564367/


4. Love, R. R., Leventhal, H., Easterling, D. V., & Nerenz, D. R. (1989). Side effects and emotional distress during cancer chemotherapy. Cancer, 63(3), 604-612.


5. Chui, P. L. (2019). Cancer- and chemotherapy-related symptoms and the use of complementary and alternative medicine. Asia-Pacific journal of oncology nursing. Retrieved February 20, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6287385/


 

Contributors:

Author: Kayjah Taylor

Editor: Chadwick Huynh

Health scientist: Rayven Hall


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