Highlights : Chemotherapy is one of the key modalities of cancer treatment and the first line therapy of choice for most cancers as supported by clinical evidence and guidelines. There are multiple chemo drugs used for specific cancer types, but many cancer patients end up dealing with long-term and short-term chemotherapy side-effects. This blog outlines the risk/benefit analysis of this much dreaded but unavoidable treatment option for cancer patients.
What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is the mainstay of cancer treatment and the first line therapy choice for most cancers as supported by clinical guidelines and evidence. There are multiple chemotherapy drugs with distinct mechanisms of action used for specific cancer types. Oncologists prescribe chemotherapy either before surgery to shrink the size of a large tumor; to just generally slow the growth of the cancer cells; to treat cancer that has metastasized and spread through different parts of the body; or to eliminate and clean out all the mutated and rapidly growing cancer cells to prevent further relapse in the future.
Chemotherapy drugs were not originally meant for their current usage in cancer treatment. In fact, it was discovered during the second World War when researchers realized that nitrogen mustard gas killed off a large number of white blood cells, prompting further research on whether it could stop the growth of other rapidly dividing and mutating cancer cells. Through more research, experimentation, and clinical testing, chemotherapy has evolved into what it is today.
Chemo Side Effects in Cancer Patients
The side-effects of chemotherapy are widely known and recognized as this treatment can greatly lower the quality of life for a patient.
Some of the common short term side-effects of chemotherapy include :
- hair loss
- nausea and vomiting
- insomnia and
- breathing trouble
These symptoms vary both based on the individual and their type of cancer which helps determine which specific chemo drugs are used. A chemotherapy drug called Adriamycin (DOX), known more commonly as the red devil, is infamous for causing major skin and tissue damage if by mistake the drug falls onto one’s skin, along with causing low blood counts, mouth sores, and nausea.
Some of the common long-term side-effects of chemotherapy include :
Now, going through such a harsh and life changing treatment is only worth if the doctors are more than confident about the efficacy of this treatment. However, often unbeknownst to the patient, risky and costly chemo treatments are often suggested as a general solution in fighting cancer.
While overall 5-year survival rates have slightly improved in the last 20 years, it is doubtful how much of that can really be attributed to the cancer drugs. Peter H Wise, a physician from the Charing Cross Hospital in UK analyzed a large study done to see the effect of cytotoxic chemotherapy in five-year cancer survival rates and found that “drug therapy increased cancer survival by less than 2.5%” (Peter H Wise et al, BMJ, 2016).
It is not hard to understand why this is the case since cancer treatment should not just be determined based on the type and stage of cancer a person has, but by looking at each individual’s clinical history, age and health status and their specific cancer genes, to create personalized therapy options. While Chemotherapy is a harsh necessity to control the fast growing cancers, unnecessary, excessive, aggressive and prolonged treatments may outweigh the benefits by the immense negative impact on the quality of life of the patient.
Cancer patients often have to deal with different chemotherapy side effects which affect their quality of life and look out for alternative therapies for cancer. Taking the right nutrition and supplements based on scientific considerations (avoiding guesswork and random selection) is the best natural remedy for cancer and treatment related side-effects.