What you need to know about chemotherapy
Is Chemotherapy Painful? How to Manage Potential Side Effects
Chemotherapy is often referred to as “the worst thing that could happen to you.” But you don’t have to go through it alone. There are ways to manage potential side effects and make sure you’re comfortable during your treatments. Here are some things to keep in mind.
There are different types of chemotherapy
I have metastatic disease now. This means cancer has spread to more places in my body.
So I don’t get the type of chemotherapies most people think of — through an IV, usually in the hospital, called “infusion chemo.”
Instead, for my chemo I take pills every day, plus a monthly shot.
The injection helps promote healthy bone formation because the cancer is attacking my bone.
With the pills, I still experience some of the usual and unusual side-effects of chemotherapy, though they’re less severe than before.
How chemotherapy is given
Into a vein (intra venous chemotherapy)
Intravenous chemotherapy is giving chemotherapy directly into a vein. This is usually done via a needle inserted into a vein in the front of your hand or lower leg. Chemotherapy is given from a bag of fluid called an infusion set.
In most cases, chemotherapy is administered over several hours. You’ll receive the medication in a hospital setting. Your doctor will give you specific instructions about how long you’ll be receiving treatment.
You may feel some discomfort while having chemotherapy. But it won’t hurt as much as getting a shot. And there are ways to make the experience less painful.
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy isn’t just about getting sick. There are many different types of treatments, each with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Some people feel great during treatment, while others experience nausea, fatigue, hair loss, mouth sores, and weight gain.
But no matter how you look at it, most patients go through some form of cancer treatment—and some people don’t like it. So we asked our experts for advice on what you might want to know before starting treatment. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about chemotherapy.
1. Chemo doesn’t always mean being sick.
There are three main types of chemotherapy: oral, intravenous, and topical. Oral chemo is often referred to as pill therapy because it involves taking medication every day. Intravenous chemo usually requires spending a few hours per week in the hospital. Topical chemo includes applying cream directly to the affected area.
2. Side effects vary depending on the type of treatment.
Some people feel great during treatment; others experience nausea, fatigue, hair loss, mouth sours, and weight gain. But the specific symptoms depend on the type of treatment you receive. For example, oral chemo tends to cause fewer side effects than intravenous chemo, since it’s delivered orally rather than intravenously.
3. People respond differently to chemo.
Everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy. Some people may not even notice any side effects, while others can barely function without their medications. The same goes for the severity of side effects. Some people find that they only experience mild side effects, while others experience serious ones.
4. Your doctor will monitor your health throughout treatment.
Your doctor will check your blood work regularly to ensure that your white blood cell count stays high enough so that your immune system can fight off infection. They also measure the size of tumors to see if they’re shrinking or growing. If your tumor starts to grow again after treatment ends, this is known as “recurrence.”
5. A lot of research is going into new drugs that target cancer cells but leave normal cells unharmed.
Scientists have been working on developing targeted therapies that would attack cancer cells specifically. These drugs could be more effective than traditional chemotherapy and reduce the risk of long-term damage to healthy tissue.
6. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your options.
It’s crucial to discuss all of your treatment options with your doctor. This way, you can make sure you choose the right one for you. You should also ask questions about potential side effects and other risks associated with each option.
7. Chemo can help cure cancer.
Chemotherapy has helped save countless lives over the years by curing diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and breast cancer. In fact, it was originally developed to treat these cancers.
8. Chemo can kill cancer cells, but it won’t necessarily kill them all.
While chemo kills many cancer cells, it does not guarantee that the cancer will disappear completely. Sometimes, the cancer returns once treatment stops. To avoid recurrence, doctors recommend continuing treatments until the cancer shrinks back to its smallest possible size.
9. Chemotherapy isn’t just used to treat cancer.
Doctors use it to treat other conditions like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and malaria.
10. Chemotherapy doesn’t always work.
Sometimes, the cancer comes back no matter what. Other times, the cancer responds well to treatment but then grows back when treatment ends.
You take some chemo drugs as pills or skin cream.
The National Cancer Institute says there are three main types of cancer treatments: surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses medications to kill cancer cells. There are many different kinds of chemotherapy and each type works differently. Some people receive chemotherapy intravenously (IV), while others receive it through a tube that goes into a vein in their arms, hips, legs, or belly. Doctors often recommend chemotherapy because it can help cure cancer. But sometimes doctors give chemotherapy even though it won’t work. They do this because they want to make sure you don’t get sick from side effects. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, mouth sores, diarrhea, fatigue, and weight gain or loss.
Some people are afraid of taking pills every day. Others don’t want to take oral chemotherapy because they feel it is too harsh on the body. There are ways around both problems. Oral chemotherapy works the same way as other forms of chemotherapy, except that it is delivered orally. You do not swallow the medicine; rather, you drink it.
When you start oral chemotherapy, you will likely begin with one dose per week. Your doctor will adjust the dosage based on how well you tolerate the medication and how much chemotherapy you receive. Most patients take oral chemotherapy once a week for six weeks. Then, there is a break of four weeks during which no further doses are administered. After the break, another cycle begins.
If you miss a dose, call your doctor immediately. Don’t wait until you’re nauseous or vomiting to call. Also, don’t stop taking the medication unless instructed to do so by your doctor.
You may have heard about topical chemotherapy, a treatment option that uses a drug directly applied to the skin. This type of therapy is often used to treat skin cancer, although some dermatologists say it could be useful for treating other types of skin problems too.
The idea behind topical chemotherapy is that it delivers a high concentration of a medication directly into the affected tissue. As a result, it can be much stronger than oral chemotherapy—the most common form of cancer treatment. In fact, many people think that topical chemotherapy is just another way of saying “injection.”
But there are risks involved. For example, topical chemotherapy can cause irritation, redness, blisters, peeling, itching, pain, swelling, and even scarring. Some medications can cause allergic reactions. And because the drug is being injected directly onto the skin, there is always a chance of infection.
If you decide to try topical chemotherapy, make sure you understand how to apply it properly. Also, keep track of what you do with the tubes and containers. Be careful when opening and closing them; don’t let anyone else touch them. Dispose of them safely.
Other types of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a treatment option used to treat cancer. There are different types of chemotherapy depending on how it is administered. Chemotherapy is often combined with surgery, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and biological therapies.
The most common type of chemotherapy is intravenous (IV), meaning that it is delivered directly into the bloodstream via a needle or catheter inserted into a vein in the arm or hand. This method is usually used for treating leukemia, lymphoma, breast cancer, lung cancer, testicular cancer, ovarian cancer, brain tumors, Hodgkin’s disease, and melanoma. IV chemotherapy works best when the tumor cells are growing rapidly and there are many of them. IV chemotherapy is typically given over several hours each day.
Subcutaneous chemotherapy involves injecting medicine directly into the area where the tumor is located. Subcutaneous chemotherapy is generally used to treat cancers that are close to vital organs such as the heart or lungs. For example, patients with small cell lung cancer may receive subcutaneous chemotherapy along with chest radiation.
Intramuscular chemotherapy involves injecting medicine directly beneath the skin near the site of the tumor. Intramuscular chemotherapy is generally used to prevent metastasis, or spread of cancer to nearby tissues and organs. For example, patients receiving adjuvant chemotherapy after curative resection of colon cancer may receive intra-muscular chemotherapy.
Intrathecal chemotherapy involves delivering medication directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). CSF is a clear liquid that surrounds the spinal cord and protects it. Medication injected into the CSF circulates throughout the body and reaches areas far beyond the immediate vicinity of the injection site. Intrathecal chemotherapy is usually used to treat leukemias and lymphomas.
A skin cream is a topical application of a drug designed to deliver high concentrations of medicine directly into the affected area. A skin cream is applied directly to the skin and absorbed quickly. Skin creams are often used to treat certain conditions including psoriasis, eczema, contact dermatitis, acne vulgaris, herpes simplex virus infections, warts, and molluscum contagiosum.
Further information about chemotherapy is available on Cancer.gov.
How often will I need to take oral or topical chemotherapy?
You’ll probably need to take chemo several times per month for months or even longer. There are different types of chemo, depending on what type of cancer you have.
Chemotherapy is one way doctors treat most cancers. They use drugs to kill rapidly growing tumor cells. Some patients need to take pills orally, others need creams applied directly to the skin, and some need both.
The length of time you’ll need to take chemo depends on the type of cancer you have, where it’s located, and whether it’s spread throughout your body.
Your doctor will explain how often you’ll need to take the medication during each treatment cycle. For example, he might say you’ll need to take oral chemotherapy four days a week for six weeks, followed by a three-week break, then five days a week for another six weeks. Or he could give you a schedule like this:
Day 0: Treatment starts. Day 7: Take medicine for seven days. Day 14: Take medicine for seven more days. Day 21: Take medicine for seven consecutive days.
This is called a “cycle.” Each cycle takes about three weeks. Then you stop taking the medicine for a while. When you come back for another cycle, you begin again at day zero.
If you don’t feel well after taking chemo, talk to your doctor. He’ll make sure you’re getting enough fluids and nutrients. If necessary, he may prescribe medications to help ease side effects.
What can I expect from oral or topical chemo?
The side effects of any form or chemotherapy are different for everyone. Some people experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, mouth sores, fatigue, skin rashes, and changes in taste. Other people report headaches, dizziness, insomnia, constipation, dry mouth, shortness of breath, numbness, swelling, pain, and muscle cramps.
Your doctors can tell you about the most common side effects of each type of chemotherapy, but it’s important to know that some side effects are rarer than others. For example, many patients taking oral chemotherapy will have mild symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. In contrast, people receiving intravenous chemotherapy often suffer from severe side effects like low blood counts, infections, and fevers.
You should let your doctor know immediately if you notice any unusual symptoms while undergoing treatment. You might want to write down what you’re experiencing and bring it to your next appointment.
If you aren’t sure about something, ask your doctor. He or she might be able to explain why you’re feeling the way you do and suggest ways to manage your symptoms.
What happens after IV chemotherapy ends?
After your treatment session ends, you will receive instructions on what to do next. You will likely feel tired, weak, nauseous, and thirsty. These are normal symptoms that occur during your recovery period.
Your doctor or nurse will explain what to expect with side effect management. For example, they might say:
– Take acetaminophen every 4 hours to relieve fever.
– Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
– Eat small meals several times a day.
– Use the bathroom frequently.
– Keep track of your medications and follow directions carefully.
– Call your doctor immediately if you experience chest pain or shortness of breath.
If you have a port, the nurse will change the dressing around it once a week. This helps prevent infection and keeps the site clean.
You may be given a prescription for pain medicine. Ask your nurse for help finding a pharmacy near where you live.
Questions to ask the health care team
The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends asking questions about your cancer treatment plan during your initial appointment. These are some good ones to start with.
1. Who is creating my chemotherapy plan?
2. What is the purpose of the chemotherapy plan?
3. When will it be updated?
4. Who will review the plan?
5. What do you think is most important to me?
6. Can you explain why we chose this particular approach?
Chemotherapy drugs are powerful medicines used to treat cancer. They’re often very effective, but they come with risks. Some side effects can be serious, even life threatening. You won’t know what those risks are until you talk to your doctor.
The most common side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, mouth sores, low blood counts, fatigue, skin rashes, infections, and pain. Your doctor might prescribe medication to help control some of these symptoms.
Ask About Risks
Your doctor knows best. If you have questions, ask him/her. He/she will tell you how likely it is that each risk will occur and whether there are ways to prevent or reduce the likelihood of certain side effects.
Side effects that occur during chemotherapy treatment
Chemotherapy drugs are extremely powerful medications used to treat cancer. They work by damaging rapidly dividing cells, such as those found in tumors. While the goal of chemotherapy is to kill cancerous cells, it does come with some serious side effects. These side effects vary depending on the type of drug being administered. Some common side effects include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and loss of appetite.
Nausea & Vomiting
Some people get nauseated when they take chemotherapy. Others find themselves throwing up. Nausea and vomiting can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. It usually goes away within a week or two. However, if you continue to vomit frequently, your doctor may recommend an anti-nausea medicine.
People who receive chemotherapy sometimes develop loose stools. This condition is called chemotherapy induced diarrhea (CID). CID occurs because the drugs cause damage to the lining of the small intestine. As a result, the body absorbs fewer nutrients from food. To avoid this problem, your doctor may give you special dietary instructions.
Chemotherapy drugs can also affect the growth of hair follicles. Hair loss can happen at any time during treatment. The extent of hair loss depends on the type of chemotherapy drug and dosage.
Another side effect of chemotherapy is mouth sores. These sores appear inside the mouth and throat. They can range from minor irritation to painful ulcers. Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to treat them.
Low Blood Counts
When you undergo chemotherapy, your white blood cell count decreases. White blood cells are part of the immune system. Chemotherapy drugs attack rapidly growing cells, including tumor cells. As a result, your white blood cell levels decrease. Low blood counts can lead to infection.
When you undergo chemotherapy, you’ll feel tired. Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. It’s caused by the stress of fighting off disease and undergoing treatments.
A rash is another common side effect of chemotherapy. A rash appears as redness, swelling, itching, or blisters on the skin. Sometimes, a person develops a fever along with a rash.
Chemotherapy drugs can make you more susceptible to infections. This is especially true for people receiving high doses of chemotherapy. You should be extra careful to wash hands after using the bathroom. Also, keep your fingernails trimmed so that bacteria cannot grow under the nails.
Loss of Appetite
You might lose interest in eating while undergoing chemotherapy. In fact, many people report losing their appetites completely. This could lead to weight loss.
Tests and checks
Before chemotherapy begins, you’ll likely have tests to check your overall health and see whether the treatment is suitable for your body. These tests might include:
blood tests to check things like how well your liver and kidney function, and how many red blood cells you have
X-ray scans to look at the size of your tumor
measurements of your height and weight, to help your doctors work out the correct dose of drugs
During treatment, you’ll probably have further tests to monitor your progress, including:
CT scans to measure how much cancerous tissue there is.
MRI scans to take pictures of organs inside your body.
PET scans to use radioactive material to find signs of disease.
Blood tests to check what effect the treatment is having on your immune system.
You may not need to stay overnight in the hospital.
While most people think of hospitals when they hear about cancer treatments, there are many places besides hospitals where you can receive chemotherapy.
A hospital isn’t the only option. You may also get treatment in a doctor’s office, clinic, or outpatient wing of a hospital, depending on the type of cancer you have.
Where you get treatment, what kind of chemotherapy you have, how often you get it, and whether you’re getting it alone or with others depends on a number of factors, including:
The type of cancer you have
Whether you had chemo before, or another form of treatment like radiation therapy
Other medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease
How much money you have
What insurance plan you have
When you do get treatment, some types of cancer require daily visits to the doctor’s office, while others allow you to go once every three weeks or even less frequently.