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Chemotherapy, also known as a type of systemic anti-cancer therapy or SACT, is the use of drugs to destroy or stop the growth of cancer cells. SACT is the collective name given to a group of cancer drugs that are used to treat cancer. Other forms of SACT we offer include immunotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapies.
Research in oncology and clinical trials have advanced and improved the effectiveness of these treatments which are delivered by a highly trained multidisciplinary team led by our oncology consultants to ensure you get the best treatment and care. Oncology consultants are doctors who specialise in the treatment of cancer.
Your oncologist may recommend chemotherapy as part of your cancer treatment options for several reasons. These include:
- Using it as the main therapy to treat your cancer
- To shrink a tumour before surgery or radiotherapy (neoadjuvant chemotherapy)
- To reduce the risk of your cancer coming back after surgery or radiotherapy (adjuvant chemotherapy)
- To make cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy (often called chemoradiotherapy or chemoradiation)
- To treat or control cancer that has spread to other parts of the body and to ease symptoms (palliative chemotherapy)
If you choose GenesisCare for your cancer treatment, your oncologist will work with you to develop a personalised care plan based on your specific diagnosis and preferences.
Throughout your chemotherapy, you’ll receive support from a care team of highly trained nurses who are experts in systemic anti-cancer therapies and managing side effects.
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What is chemotherapy?
A chemotherapy drug travels through your bloodstream and reaches all parts of your body. This is why it’s called a systemic treatment.
A chemotherapy drug in your body can either destroy cancer cells or prevent growth by disrupting how they divide and grow. The drug can also affect normal cells, which are growing and dividing quickly.
Damaged cells may cause you to experience side effects. But most of these are temporary because healthy cells quickly grow back.
How will I have chemotherapy?
Your treatment plan may involve you receiving one chemotherapy drug or a combination of drugs. The chemotherapy drugs you have depend on where in your body your cancer started. This is because different drugs work on different types of cancer. You may need regular blood tests to assess your overall health and to monitor how your body is responding to chemotherapy during your treatment.
How often you have chemotherapy, how it’s given, the dose of chemotherapy and how long your course is for will depend on your type of cancer, the stage of cancer, and the drugs you’re having.
Chemotherapy is typically given as several sessions of treatment with rest periods in between each one. Your treatment will be given as an outpatient so you’ll be able to go home after each session. This is known as a chemotherapy cycle.
The main ways to have chemotherapy are:
- By mouth as tablets or capsules (oral chemotherapy)
- By injection or a drip directly into a vein via a catheter (intravenous chemotherapy)
Other ways you can have chemotherapy are:
- By injection into a muscle (intramuscular) or under the skin (subcutaneous)
- Directly into a body cavity (intravesical), for example, in the treatment of bladder cancer
- Directly to the skin as a cream for some skin cancers
Sometimes chemotherapy is given over days or weeks through an external infusion pump. Or you might take tablets or capsules daily for weeks or months. You might have chemotherapy in more than one way. For example, your oncologist may recommend you have one type of chemotherapy as a tablet and another as an injection.
Side effects of chemotherapy
Most common side effects caused by chemotherapy are temporary, but you might be affected by them after your treatment ends. We’ll work closely with you to limit the impact of them as much as possible.
Chemotherapy can weaken your immune system during treatment. Your oncologist will give you advice on how to recognise signs of infection and how to protect yourself against them. This can include:
- Washing your hands often with soap
- Avoiding close contact with people who may have an infection
- Having an annual flu jab
Chemotherapy can affect the healthy cells in your bone marrow. This can reduce your blood cell counts for different types of blood cells in your body, which can lead to the following problems:
- Reduced white blood cells (neutropenia) – which can increase your risk of infections
- Reduced red blood cells (anaemia) – can cause you to feel very tired and weak, and maybe breathless
- Reduced platelets – can make you more likely to bruise easily or bleed more than normal
Some chemotherapy drugs can cause your hair to thin or fall out, including your eyelashes, eyebrows and body hair. GenesisCare offers the latest in scalp cooling technology which can prevent or minimise hair loss. Your chemotherapy nurse will be able to provide more information on this. Chemotherapy can also make your skin dry and sensitive and make your nails grow more slowly or break more easily.
Chemotherapy may affect your digestive system in one or more of the following ways:
- Feeling sick or being sick
- Loss of appetite or changes to your taste
- A sore mouth, mouth ulcers or infection
Chemotherapy may affect your sex life because you feel more tired or sick, making you less interested in sex. However, this should improve after your chemotherapy ends.
Some chemotherapy drugs can affect your fertility and, in some women, lead to early menopause.
Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the way your kidneys, liver, heart or lungs work. These changes are usually temporary, but some people may be affected permanently.
Some chemotherapy drugs may cause you to experience ringing in your ears (tinnitus), or you may struggle to hear some high-pitched sounds. These changes are usually temporary and improve over time, but some people may be affected permanently.
Some chemotherapy drugs may damage nerves in your body, especially in your hands and feet, making them feel numb or cause a pins-and-needles type feeling. This side effect usually improves over time, but it can be permanent for some.
You may find you become forgetful or unable to concentrate during or after chemotherapy treatment. This is sometimes called cancer-related cognitive changes (CRCC), chemo brain or chemo fog. These changes in concentration or memory are usually mild and should gradually return to normal after your chemotherapy has ended.
People experience these side effects differently, and we have a range of interventions and therapies to help you through this time. Our nurses and pharmacists have many years of experience, so they understand what you’re going through and are here to give you expert advice and care. Thankfully, many side effects soon pass when treatment stops.
If you decide to have chemotherapy treatment at GenesisCare, your oncologist or one of our expert nurses will explain the side effects your chemotherapy is likely to cause and be there with you every step of the way, with advice on how to manage these. We also offer complementary therapies and access to support groups that are proven to help people with cancer and aim to improve your quality of life during your treatment and beyond.
Chemotherapy vs Radiotherapy
Chemotherapy is a medicine designed to destroy cancer cells and can be given in a number of ways, such as in tablet form or through a vein (intravenously).
Radiotherapy uses radiation beams directed at the tumour and is focused on one area of your body.
The best form of treatment for you will depend on many factors like your type of cancer or the stage your cancer is at. Your consultant will always discuss your options with you and help guide you to the best treatment choices for you. Often, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can complement each other and be used together. This is known as concurrent therapy and may be suggested if your cancer is:
- Difficult or unable to be removed through surgery
- There is a risk of the cancer spreading
- The cancer is not responding well to other forms of treatment