Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. Many different kinds of chemotherapy medicines and treatment plans are available. The kind of medicines given, and how often they are needed, will depend on the type of cancer.
Chemotherapy is usually given in multiple courses (cycles) for a set amount of time, or for as long as the treatment is effective. Having the treatment in cycles allows time for the healthy cells in your body to recover between treatments.
Chemotherapy may be used on its own, or in combination with other types of treatment, such as before or after surgery or radiation therapy, or together with radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy works by killing cells that are rapidly dividing, such as cancer cells. As well as killing cancer cells, chemotherapy also kills normal cells that are rapidly dividing. However, unlike cancer cells, normal cells can repair the damage and can recover.
Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells. However, some healthy cells are also damaged, and it is this damage that causes many of the more common side effects of chemotherapy. Side effects vary depending on the drugs used and the individual person. Most are temporary and can be treated or managed.
- nausea and vomiting
- diarrhoea or constipation
- fatigue (tiredness)
- mouth sores or ulcers
- increased risk of infection
- increased risk of bruising
- hair loss
- muscle weakness
- skin sensitivity to sunlight (specific drugs only)
- nerve damage (specific drugs only)
- dry or tired eyes
- loss of appetite.
Each person responds differently to chemotherapy, and this also applies to weight. Some people may lose weight, while others may gain weight. Your cancer may also affect your weight. If you have any concerns about your weight during treatment, please raise them with your doctor.
Some people receiving chemotherapy will lose their hair, depending on the type of drugs you receive. Your doctor or nurse will be able to tell you whether your particular treatment will cause hair loss.
Some vitamins and medicines can interfere with the effects of chemotherapy. Please provide your doctor with a list of the medicines you are currently taking, including over-the-counter medicines. If you start taking any new medicines during your treatment please let your doctor know.
It’s recommended you do some light exercise, such as walking, to help manage fatigue and improve well being. Studies have shown that exercising during your therapy is associated with an improved outcome.
Your ability to continue to work will depend on the nature of your work, your type of treatment and how well you feel during your treatment. Please discuss this with your doctor.
There may be certain activities you won’t be able to participate in during your treatment. This will depend on the treatment you are having, your diagnosis and your blood counts at the time. If you are unsure about whether you should take part in a particular activity, please speak with your doctor or nurse.
Chemotherapy can affect the production of blood cells in your body, including your white blood cells, which protect against infection. When your white blood cells are low, you are more at risk of developing a cold or infection. During this time, it’s important to avoid people who are unwell.