Dispelling the myths about chemotherapy

For many people, just mentioning the word chemotherapy is enough to conjure up an image of pain, hair thinning and constant nausea. But chemotherapy has played a crucial role in the battle against cancer for the last few decades, and it merely denotes therapy using chemicals. So why does it strike fear into the hearts of most people?

© Getty

© Getty

It is probably because unless you have actually had chemotherapy yourself, most of us have very little knowledge of how chemotherapy works, and what the side effects are. So in order to clear up some of the most common myths about this type of treatment, we have listed the facts about chemotherapy, in order to dispel some of the myths.

1. Chemotherapy drugs attack all the cells in our body

The drugs that make up chemotherapy are designed to attack the rapid cellular growth that typify cancer cells. These cells grow uncontrollably and cancer drugs attack these cells at their very core –- the DNA part, or the enzymes that help them to grow. This is why some types of cancer drugs make our hair fall out, as hair cells grow very quickly. Cancer drugs cannot target cancer cells exclusively however, but they do not attack all cells in the body. Chemotherapy drugs are becoming increasingly refined, thanks to research in cancer, and new drugs are targeting the sugars that cancer cells feed on, which will lead onto even more effective treatments in the future.

2. There is only one type of chemotherapy

There are a number of chemotherapy treatments, specifically designed for different types of cancers and for individuals. So two people with lung cancer may not be put on the same drug. There is no ‘one size fits all’ treatment, and some chemo is even used before surgery to help to reduce the size of tumours, after surgery to stop the spread of cancer cells, or alongside radiation therapy.

3. Chemotherapy is unbearably painful

This is by far the most inaccurate myth concerning chemotherapy. Most chemotherapy is administered over a few months, and in many instances, the first month can be symptom free. It is as the chemicals build up in a person’s body that side effects will begin to appear. These can range from fatigue, flu-like symptoms but rarely nausea, which is most people’s worry. Almost all patients are treated on an out patients basis, and rarely is an overnight stay required. People can get on with their lives, with a little extra support when they do feel unwell.

4. Chemotherapy makes me thin

Actually the reverse is true, as people who are put on chemo drug also have to take steroids to help with the inflammation that chemo causes. Steroids make you put on weight, and can increase water retention so those images of people looking wan and thin whilst on chemo are a thing of the past.

5. I’ll lose my hair on chemotherapy

Not everyone will lose their hair whilst on chemo, as there are increasingly new discoveries and treatments that target specific cancer cells that will not affect hair follicles. In fact, drugs such as Cisplatin and Vinorelbine actually cause very little cellular damage, other than to the actual metastasizing cancer cells.

6. The treatment is worse than the disease

For many, the thought of having to undergo chemotherapy can be more frightening than having cancer itself, but the treatment will only last a short time, and the side effects will disappear after a short time and the end goal is life itself. Thanks to chemotherapy, now having a diagnosis of cancer is no longer a death sentence, but many people’s attitudes regarding treatment are based on drugs that were used back in the 50’s and 60’s.

Chemo drugs are now much more advanced and refined, and research is showing great strides regarding reducing side effects and targeting specific cells, to cause minimal surrounding damage.

So if you have to embark on a course on chemotherapy, trust your oncologist and remember that there have been great advances in medical research that will help with lessening any possible side effects.

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