One in three people will experience cancer at some point in their lives. There are more than 200 types of cancer that can affect various parts of the body. About 22,280 people will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer by the end of this year in the United States.
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery are the mainstay orthodox medical treatments offered by oncologists for the treatment of cancer.
What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is either a single cytotoxic drug or a combination of cytotoxic drugs. These drugs are poisons that damage cells so that they are unable to divide and reproduce, and they die as a result.
This is why cytotoxic drugs are useful in killing cancer cells. Unfortunately, however, they don’t differentiate between what is a healthy cell and what is cancer so they kill normal cells too. This is why chemotherapy can cause many side effects, some of them serious.
How Long Have Doctors Been Using Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy was discovered accidentally in World War II when German planes bombed some ships at Bari harbor in Italy, and exploded some of the cargo on the ships.
This cargo was mustard gas, which then polluted the surrounding area and made lots of people who lived near the port extremely ill, with skin damage and severe infections. A large number died despite receiving the best hospital care available.
Two American army doctors realized that virtually every patient they treated had a very low white blood cell count. As white blood cells are needed to fight viruses and bacteria, this made them vulnerable to infection.
The American doctors then reasoned that they might be able to use mustard gas to deliberately lower white blood cell count, in order to manage or treat diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma. Both these types of cancer are caused by an overproduction of white blood cells.
So they injected volunteers with small doses of nitrogen mustard and found that they could slow down the progression of their leukemia and control their illness. And so the first anti-cancer chemotherapy was created from a biological warfare agent.
Mustard gas can be deadly and is extremely toxic even in tiny doses. The medical profession wanted a drug that would perform the same action as mustard gas, but with less risk.
Drugs that were chemically similar to mustard gas, but safer for human use, were developed, such as cyclophosphamide and chlorambucil. These drugs are still in use as chemotherapy agents today.
There are now more than 100 different cytotoxic drugs available to kill cancer cells. Other forms of treatment are also being used, such as injecting the person with antibodies against the tumors and using hormonal medications to slow down the growth of hormone-mediated cancers such as breast cancer.
Side-Effects of Chemotherapy and How to Manage Them
One of the common side effects of chemotherapy is reduction in blood cell count which can in turn reduce the amount of oxygen that is in the tissues. It can also increase susceptibility to infections and impair your blood clotting ability.
This can make you feel tired and breathless. You may bruise easily and have abnormal bleeding such as bleeding gums.
Other common side effects are extreme fatigue, hair loss, sore mouth and infertility problems post-treatment as well as nausea and vomiting. Nausea and vomiting are less problematic these days than in previous decades, thanks to the introduction of more effective anti-sickness medications.
Many people think that everyone loses their hair if they have chemotherapy but this isn’t the case. It depends on what types of cytotoxic drugs were used. Some drugs are associated with hair loss and others aren’t, so you may be able to have a drug that doesn’t cause hair loss if you are worried about this.
Hair loss usually occurs three or four weeks after commencing treatment and may be rapid and result in total loss of all hair, including eyelashes and pubic hair. Sometimes chemotherapy will only cause your hair to thin.
You can expect your hair to have grown back six months after you stop your treatment but don’t be surprised if it is a different color or you’ve suddenly got curls. This is a common occurrence!
If you have any teeth or gum problems these should be dealt with before you start chemotherapy, as it is likely to make them worse. You should schedule a dental appointment every three months.
Sucking crushed ice before and during chemotherapy can also sometimes prevent mouth soreness. You can use an antiseptic mouth ulcer gel if you develop mouth ulcers.
Post-chemotherapy fatigue can also be remedied by giving iron supplements, blood transfusions, antibiotics or anti-fungal medicine can be given to treat infections which can cause pain and exhaustion.
Don’t just put up with fatigue because you think you have to. You don’t have to suffer in silence as there are things that can be done to help.
Getting family support is vital.
Ask family members and friends to help with housework, shopping or other chores. Only do activities that are vital, and this will help you conserve your strength.
Ovarian Cancer, National Cancer Institute. Web. 27 October 2012.
Coping with Chemotherapy, Dr. Terry Priestman. Sheldon Press, 2005. ISBN. 978-0-85969-949-5.
Reviewed October 29, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith