Chemotherapy is bound to change you life. You may not look or feel like your usual self and it may be difficult to talk about your feelings with other people. Knowing how chemotherapy acts on the normal and abnormal cells in your body helps make your treatment less frightening and the side effects easier to understand and manage. Understanding chemotherapy and its effects on the cancer and your body, will help you cope with the treatment better.
The information offered here is in general terms and treatment practices can vary among physicians. Your treatment is tailored by your doctor according to your general health, blood counts and the type of cancer.
Chemotherapy is the use of medications to treat a disease. Today, the word chemotherapy is most often used to describe a method of cancer treatment in which special drugs are used to destroy fast-growing cancer cells. Chemotherapy enters the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body to kill cancer cells that surgery or radiation cannot reach. When more than one medication is used, it is called combination chemotherapy. When a treatment plan includes surgery and / or radiotherapy, it is called combined modality treatment.
Chemotherapy acts against cancer at the level of the individual cells in a tumour. Anti-cancer medications disrupt or inhibit the cancer cells' ability to grow and multiply, thus killing them. As anti-cancer medications cannot differentiate normal cells from cancer cells, they can affect normal body cells which are rapidly dividing too. The normal cells most likely to be affected are those in the bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, reproductive systems and hair follicles. Fortunately, most normal cells are able to recover quickly when the treatment is over.
The best way to get the medication to the cancer site depends on the type of cancer and the medication or medications used. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth (orally), injected into muscle (intramuscularly) or through a vein (intravenously). At the KK Gynaecological Cancer Centre, most patients receive their medications through the intravenous route. Once in the blood, the anti-cancer medication is distributed by the bloodstream throughout the body.
Taking anti-cancer medications usually does not cause pain. If you take them by mouth, it is the same as taking any other medicine in a liquid, capsule or table form. When the medicine is injected into a muscle, it feels very much like an ordinary injection. An intravenous (IV) injection usually feels like having a blood sample drawn for laboratory test. Some patients may experience a stinging feeling at the area of injection.
If the medication seeps out of the vein, you may experience pain. Under such circumstances, it is important to inform your nurse or doctor immediately. If left untreated, this may lead to permanent scarring and damage of the tissue around the intravenous site.
The cost of chemotherapy varies with:
Subsidised patients are given medications at a reduced price. Chemotherapy medications given at the Gynaecological Cancer Centre can be deducted from the Medisave Account. The Medisave withdrawal limit is $300 per week or $1,200 per month.Medishield is allowed to be used 8 times per year.
The duration and frequency of your chemotherapy is dependent on the kind of cancer you have, the type of medications used and how your body responds to them. Chemotherapy may be given daily, weekly or monthly. Often there are rest periods so that your body has a chance to build healthy new cells and recover. The planned schedule by your doctors may be adjusted as time goes by, to suit your individual responses and treatment needs. It is important to follow-up the appointments given by your doctor in order to get the best of chemotherapy.
It is important to consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication, such as aspirin, as they may interfere with the treatment or cause harmful side effects to your body. You should show your doctors all the medicines that you are currently taking. Sometimes, it may be necessary to prescribe an alternative drug for you.
Some people may feel tired after chemotherapy and should cut down their activities and take more rest. It is also wise to avoid crowded places and people with contagious diseases during the period of treatment as your body's defence system is weakened by the chemotherapy. However, most people will be able to carry on with their daily routine. Your doctors may even be able to adapt your chemotherapy schedule to fit in with your holiday plans. Be sure to inform and consult your doctor early if you wish to do so.
The medications used in chemotherapy attack normal cells in the same way as they kill cancer cells. Thus, the most vulnerable normal cells are those which are dividing rapidly to reproduce themselves, particularly cells of the skin, the scalp, the lining of the mouth, throat, gut and the bone marrow.
Common side effects due to the temporary damage of normal cells include tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, anaemia, irregular periods and loss of hair.
Most of the side effects are temporary and tolerable. Different drugs are responsible for different side effects. Each person is an individual that reacts to chemotherapy differently e.g. the same drug may cause frequent vomiting in one patient but only a vague sense of nausea or no symptom at all in another patient.
Your doctor can help to reduce the side effects. In fact, some medicines are commonly added to your chemotherapy regime to prevent occurrence of side effects. If you have any complaint, please feel free to consult your doctor. As chemotherapy can cause birth defects, you are advised not to get pregnant during the course of chemotherapy.
If you have any of the above problems, you should seek treatment at our 24-Hour O&G Clinic immediately.