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Ellis: What to know about chemotherapy for cancer

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By Glenn Ellis

The very thought of having chemotherapy frightens many people. But knowing what chemotherapy is, how it works, and what to expect can often help calm your fears. It can also give you a better sense of control over your cancer treatment.

Chemotherapy is the use of any drug to treat any disease. But to most people, the word chemotherapy means drugs used for cancer treatment. It’s often shortened to “chemo.”

Chemotherapy is used to treat many types of cancer. For some people, chemotherapy may be the only treatment you receive. But most often, you will have chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. The types of treatment that you need depends on the type of cancer you have, if it has spread and where, and if you have other health problems.

Surgery and radiation therapy remove, kill, or damage cancer cells in a certain area, but chemo can work throughout the whole body. This means chemo can kill cancer cells that have spread (metastasized) to parts of the body far away from the original (primary) tumor.

If your doctor has recommended chemotherapy to treat your cancer, it’s important to understand the goals of treatment when making treatment decisions. There are three main goals for chemotherapy (chemo) in cancer treatment: cure; control; or palliation (make the disease less unpleasant without curing it).

Chemotherapy not only kills fast-growing cancer cells, but also kills or slows the growth of healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. Examples are cells that line your mouth and intestines and those that cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects, such as mouth sores, nausea, and hair loss. Side effects often get better or go away after you have finished chemotherapy. The most common side effect is fatigue, which is feeling exhausted and worn out.

Chemotherapy is often given through a thin needle that is placed in a vein on your hand or lower arm. Your nurse will put the needle in at the start of each treatment and remove it when treatment is over. IV chemotherapy may also be given through catheters or ports, sometimes with the help of a pump.

You may receive chemotherapy in cycles. A cycle is a period of chemotherapy treatment followed by a period of rest. For instance, you might receive chemotherapy every day for one week followed by three weeks with no chemotherapy. These four weeks make up one cycle. The rest period gives your body a chance to recover and build new healthy cells.

You can’t tell if chemotherapy is working based on its side effects. Some people think that severe side effects mean that chemotherapy is working well, or that no side effects mean that chemotherapy is not working. The truth is that side effects have nothing to do with how well chemotherapy is fighting your cancer.

When a person is first diagnosed with cancer, they often ask about their prognosis. You might want to know whether your cancer is relatively easy or more difficult to cure. Your doctor can’t predict the future, but he/she can make an estimate based on other people’s experiences with the same cancer.

Ask your doctor why he/she is recommending chemotherapy. If they had cancer, would they treat themselves with this drug? How long have they been prescribing this treatment and to how many people? What are their expectations of this treatment for you? Are there other options which could produce the same results?

Cancer clinical trials (also called cancer treatment studies or research studies) test new treatments for people with cancer. These can be studies of new types of chemotherapy, other types of treatment, or new ways to combine treatments. The goal of all these clinical trials is to find better ways to help people with cancer.

Your doctor or nurse may suggest you take part in a clinical trial. You can also suggest the idea. Before you agree to be in a clinical trial, learn about:

Benefits. All clinical trials offer quality cancer care. Ask how this clinical trial could help you or others. For instance, you may be one of the first people to get a new treatment or drug.

Risks. New treatments are not always better or even as good as standard treatments. Even if this new treatment is good, it may not work well for you.

Payment. Your insurance company may or may not pay for treatment that is part of a clinical trial. Before you agree to be in a trial, check with your insurance company to make sure it will pay for this treatment.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it’s tough to be in your shoes right now. But it may help to know that many have made this journey and found hope by preparing for what lies ahead. There’s hope in knowing that others have managed chemo with success.

Always remember; you’re not alone! There are almost 14 million people in the United States today who have survived cancer. And three out of every four American families have at least one family member with cancer.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

Glenn Ellis is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.