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What is chemotherapy and what are the side effects of the treatment?

What is chemotherapy and what are the side effects of the treatment?

Written by Editorial Team |Updated : February 24, 2015 1:23 PM IST

chemotherapeyMy 27-year-old friend has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and the doctor has advised her to undergo chemotherapy. I have heard about the treatment but I don't know what it actually entails. Could you tell me what the treatment involves and what the side effects are?

We are very sorry to hear about your friend, but chemotherapy though a bit cumbersome is one of the leading ways to fight cancer. Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs (anticancer drugs) to destroy cancer cells, stops them from spreading and slows their growth is called chemotherapy. Most of them are not specific to cancer cells and target all rapidly dividing cells like bone marrow cells, hair follicles, etc.

Generally, normal cells can repair themselves. But many cancer cells are unable to do so and hence they die out.

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There is another type of chemotherapy known as combination chemotherapy. In it, two or more drugs are often given in conjunction because they work better together than alone. Sometimes chemotherapy is designed to shrink a tumour to minimise the destruction and increase effectiveness of surgery or radiotherapy. This is called preoperative or neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Whatever line of treatment is finally decided, it is very important that you are assessed to determine whether you are capable of undergoing the treatment. Your doctor may also adjust the dose of drugs accordingly. (Read: Learn more about cancer chemotherapy)

One of the major side effects of chemotherapy is its effect on the bone marrow. It may reduce the number of red cells and platelets in your body leading to anaemia and increased tendency to bleed. It also depresses your immune system making you susceptible to infections. Chemotherapy may also be physically exhausting to you and cause fatigue. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation. Chemotherapy may cause low sex driveandinfertility. But these side effects are usually temporary. (Read: Chemotherapy, carcinoma, complete remission and other such cancer terms explained)

Hair loss is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can cause dramatic hair loss or may cause hair thinning. But this is often a temporary effect. Your hair will usually regrow a few weeks after the treatment. There is one technique, called scalp hypothermia, which may help prevent hair loss during chemotherapy. Ice packs are placed on the scalp a few minutes before and for about a half-hour after the treatment. This reduces blood flow to the hair follicles, making it harder for the chemotherapy drugs to get into the follicular cells. Cooling also makes the hair follicles less susceptible to damage from chemotherapy drugs. Though, there is a concern of cancer recurrence with this technique. (Read: Basic cancer treatments: Surgery, Chemotherapy, Radiotherapy and Bone marrow transplants)

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