Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment in which drugs are administered to destroy the cancer cells. These drugs are also known as "anticancer" or “antineoplasctic” drugs. Healthy cells in the body grow and die in a controlled or organized way. When the cells (the building blocks that make up tissues) lose their ability to divide and grow in an orderly manner, more cells than needed are formed and the excess cells form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumour. Anticancer or antineoplasctic drugs work by attacking the cells that divide quickly. Therefore, they attack and kill the cancer cells. Healthy cells of the body, however, are also harmed, especially those that divide quickly such as bone marrow, the lining of the mouth and intestines and the hair follicles. Injury to healthy cells causes side effects when chemotherapy is given. Side effects of chemotherapy also depend on the chemotherapeutic drug that is given, dose of the drug and duration of chemotherapy. Common side effects of chemotherapy include:
Nausea and vomiting: This is the most common side effect of chemotherapy. The severity of nausea and vomiting can vary, but, in most cases, it can be controlled with anti-sickness drugs (anti-emetics).
Fatigue: The effect of chemotherapy and cancer varies in every individual. Many people may experience fatigue and tiredness during the therapy while others may lead fairly normal lives during the treatment. If you feel tired and exhausted, it is best to do as much as you can. Avoid over-straining yourself to deal with exhaustion, take short naps and adequate rest.
Hair loss: Although, it is the least harmful side effect, it can be very difficult to accept hair loss, but in most people, hair grows back surprisingly quickly after the treatment is over. Hair loss can probably be decreased with the use of cold compress around the scalp during chemotherapy.
Susceptibility to infections: Chemotherapy drugs destroy white blood cells that fight infections. This makes you susceptible to infections. Consult your doctor for any fever (even if low grade) for evaluation and treatment.
Decrease in blood cell count: As bone marrow is affected by chemotherapy, decrease in white blood cell count and anemia is seen as a common side effect of chemotherapy. Your doctor will monitor blood counts regularly while you receive chemotherapy. If necessary, you will be given blood transfusions for anemia and if the white blood count becomes low, the next cycle of chemotherapy may be delayed. Decrease in white blood cell count increases the risk of infections.
Mouth sores and ulcers: Most chemotherapy drugs affect the mouth and cause sores and ulcers in the oral mucosa. Regular use of a mouthwash can decrease the severity of mouth ulcers.
Most patients experience some degree of one or more side effects. In most cases, the side effect lasts for a short-term and goes away after the treatment has completed. Some side effects such as neuropathy (which causes symptoms such as pain, burning or tingling sensations, sensitivity to cold or heat or weakness in the hands and feet) may last for a long time in some people. Your doctor can advise you better on the side effects that you may experience and offer measures to control them.