By the strict definition of the term, chemotherapy is any drug treatment that seeks to combat a disease. However, it is usually known as a treatment that is applied in order to interrupt and end the reproduction of cancer cells in the body (these have a process of growth and division much faster than normal cells, therefore that this procedure has a greater effect on diseased cells than on healthy cells). In short, it can be said that chemotherapy serves to eliminate cancer cells and in general; to fight cancer.

Importantly, the first attempts to apply drugs to treat cancer emerged in the 1940s, when pharmacology specialists Louis S. Goodman and Alfred Gilman discovered that mustard gas (a military chemical agent) provided results. favorable in the treatment of the disease.

Benefits of chemotherapy

Although the process of going through this stage is strong, it is also true that throughout history its effectiveness in fighting cancer has been demonstrated on many occasions. Despite being a fairly invasive method, if it is applied in time and the body does not reject it, the patient will be able to overcome this disease.

Among the benefits that can be obtained from chemotherapy, the following stand out:

To destroy cancer cells

It is the main objective of this treatment. Most of the time, doctors apply these drugs to the patient with curative intent, and although there are no guarantees, there is a probability that this will happen.

It is necessary to follow all the instructions to the letter and be very patient, as this process can take weeks or months; For its part, the final diagnosis can take years to verify that the patient is effectively cancer-free, because as mentioned above, sometimes the only thing that is achieved is to almost completely reduce the cancer cells, but these can continue to be latent in the body.

To keep cancer from spreading

There are cases where cure is not possible, but chemotherapy can extend the years of life of the patient by preventing the tumor from continuing to grow or the diseased cells from spreading. In this way, the condition is treated as a chronic disease and some people who suffer from it manage to live with it and feel a little better, that is, the disease is kept under control.

To relieve symptoms caused by cancer

This approach to chemotherapy only seeks to improve the quality of life of the patient, since, when the objective is to alleviate the ailments of the person, it means that the disease is in a very advanced stage and that the application of drugs or any other treatment will not eliminate the condition. This is known as palliation or palliative chemotherapy; which only seeks to alleviate the pain, until the inevitable happens.

Types of chemotherapy

There are several ways to classify this treatment, according to Dr. Pedro Aramburo , director of the Institute for Advanced Techniques against Cancer (iTAcC), chemotherapy can be classified as follows:

According to the moment of application

This treatment can be given to the person in different stages of the disease. Depending on the moment and the intention with which it is applied, it is called differently, the following being the most used:

  • Neoadjuvant : it is the one that is applied in the first instance in order to reduce the size of the tumors. It is generally a procedure prior to surgery or radiotherapy, as it serves to stabilize the body’s conditions before moving on to the next level of medication.
  • Adjuvant : it is administered after subjecting the patient to other treatments, to eliminate the remains of diseased cells that have persisted in the body.
  • Concomitant : also called chemoradiotherapy , it consists of giving chemotherapy with another treatment at the same time (usually radiotherapy).

According to the supply route

There are several methods to which the doctor can resort to give its course to the therapy, the following being the most used:

  • Oral : consists of taking the treatment through the mouth. These medications can come in capsule, tablet, lozenge, or liquid form. In this way, only those medicines that can be absorbed through the stomach walls and sublingually (dissolution under the tongue) can be administered.
  • Intravenous injections : It is the most common method of this treatment. In this case, the drug is injected directly into the bloodstream, which allows its rapid access to the circulatory system and is transported throughout the body. It is considered one of the most versatile treatments, since it can be administered immediately or gradually over several hours, thus adjusting the dosage to the need and resistance of each patient.
  • Subcutaneous injections : they are performed with short needles and it is an ideal option for those patients who have a low platelet count, since being a superficial method (it barely pierces the skin), it reduces the risk of bleeding during medication.
  • Topical application : it is the most limited use of chemotherapy, since it is only effective in some cases of skin cancer. It consists of applying chemotherapy creams directly on the diseased area, so that it is absorbed by the carcinogenic lesion.
  • Intra-arterial treatment : it involves the administration of drugs directly into the artery that carries blood to the tumor. Prior to treatment, the patient must have an angiography (x-ray to view the blood vessels) to locate the arteries that are connected to the tumor.

According to chemotherapeutic agents

There is a great variety of compounds that are part of this therapy, the use of each one will depend directly on the specific needs of the patient. The main ones are:

  • Alkylating agents: they act more effectively during the resting period of the cells.
  • Vegetable alkaloids : these are treatments derived from some types of plants. These drugs are specific to the cell cycle, that is, they act on cells during various phases of their division.
  • Antimetabolites : this type of treatment has substances similar to those contained within cells, which means that when introduced into them, they lose the ability to divide.

Differences between chemotherapy and radiation therapy

Although both treatments are usually medicated in patients with cancer or tumors, they have different mechanisms of action, which brings different results to the body.

Radiation therapy (unlike chemotherapy), is a treatment that acts only on the area with cancer, that is, it produces localized effects. To prescribe radiotherapies for a patient, the doctor must be certain that he or she does not suffer from metastases (cancer cells spread to other parts of the body), since in these cases, chemotherapy is the only solution. Also, because this is a less invasive procedure, the risk of major side effects is lower.

Side effects of chemotherapy

Because it is a procedure that attacks quickly, healthy cells are also compromised along the way, that is, the patient’s immune system is weakened, since the cells responsible for protecting the body from infection, transporting oxygen and preventing excessive bleeding, they suffer damage.

Generally, the patient has a reduction in the white and red blood cell count (neutropenia and anemia respectively), which makes him more prone to contracting infections. In addition, you can suffer from thrombocytopenia (reduction of platelets in the bloodstream), which increases the chances of bleeding anywhere in the body, even with daily tasks.

Among the most common and notable side effects are the following:

  • Partial or total hair loss.
  • Ulcers on the skin, mouth and throat.
  • Deterioration of the bone marrow.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders (diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, constipation).

There are other side effects that, although they are not perceived with the naked eye, but that considerably affect the life of the patient; among these are:

  • General pain (muscle, headache, stomach).
  • Fatigue.
  • Ardor.
  • Tremors and spasms
  •  Loss of balance
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Decreased ability to remember.

Conclusion on chemotherapy

Although there have been many efforts by science to achieve a definitive cure for cancer, this has not been possible, however, the treatments that seek to counteract the effects of this disease have managed to evolve considerably; This is why today, chemotherapy (with everything and its adverse reactions), represents a hope for those who suffer from this condition, therefore, it can be considered important, although not the best solution.

Samantha Robson
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Dr. Samantha Robson ( CRN: 0510146-5) is a nutritionist and website content reviewer related to her area of ​​expertise. With a postgraduate degree in Nutrition from The University of Arizona, she is a specialist in Sports Nutrition from Oxford University and is also a member of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

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