What Every Person Should Know About Chemotherapy
Updated: Jan 3
Everyone knows what chemotherapy is, right? It's a drug that treats cancer. Maybe your uncle had chemo for lung cancer, your grandma had chemo for ovarian cancer, or your friend had chemo for leukemia. And we've all seen movies and TV shows with people getting their treatments in big rooms with other cancer patients who all look like they're wasting away. From my experience, this is how people, in general, understand chemotherapy.
It's also how I use to think about chemotherapy until I started my own treatment. Then I realized I knew nothing about it. And I found this was true for many others as I shared the details of my experience with them.
Much of what I know is based on my own journey and the stories of others I have met, but since cancer seems to touch so many lives, I think it's important to share a base understanding of what it means to go through chemotherapy treatment.
Chemotherapy is Extremely Diverse
There are over 100 different types of chemo drugs, and they are used for treatment based on the type of cancer, the characteristics of the cancer cells, the stage of diagnosis, the additional options for treatment, the condition of the patient, and the opinion of the medical provider.
Timing and delivery also varies; some people receive chemo every day for several weeks while others receive one infusion every 2-3 weeks and so on. The drugs can be delivered through a port, intravenously, by injection, or even in pill form.
Peoples Reactions Are Also Diverse
I've met many people who have been on chemo, and not one of them has the same experience. Some survivors hardly feel the effects; they live their normal lives and don't seem any different. While others are in bed for months or may even be hospitalized. Sometimes more than once. I've also met individuals who couldn't complete the entire regimen because they couldn't tolerate it or it endangered their health so severely.
Chemotherapy Regimens are Identified by Letters
More specifically, these are acronyms that represent the agents used in the drug combination. For example, the two common regimens for my type of cancer are TCHP which stands for Taxotere + Carboplatin + Herceptin + Perjeta and AC+THP which stands for Adriamycin + Cyclophosphamide followed by Taxol + Herceptin + Pertuzumab. Note: The H in these combos is not chemo drug which leads me to my next point...
Other Drugs Can Be Combined with Chemo
When I receive an infusion, I also get a targeted therapy drug for my particular form of breast cancer. This is not chemotherapy, but it's given with the chemo drugs so it can effectively target and destroy those nasty cancer cells.
The Side Effects Are Endless
Nausea and fatigue are often the most well-known side effects, but chemo can cause many awful, and sometimes bizarre changes to your body and mind. Yes, even your mind. There’s actually something called "chemo brain" which is used to describe issues with thought and memory.
From my initial chemo treatment, I experienced 20 weeks of diarrhea; my nails changed color and one turned completely black; my tooth enamel became different shades of gray; my low platelets gave me a daily bloody nose; and I had dry eyes, watery eyes, a drippy nose, mouth sores, bleeding gums, and heartburn. Just to name a few. Seriously, this is a short list of the possibilities.
Not All Chemo Causes Hair Loss
It varies by the drug and the person; some people find their hair thins, while others lose everything. Or nothing. And sometimes, it falls out from one place on your body but not another.
For example, the first chemo regimen I was on caused most of the hair on my body and head to fall out. I chose to keep my head bald by shaving weekly, but I didn’t have to shave my legs or armpits all summer. And although my eyebrows and lashes thinned, I did not lose them completely. The chemo I am currently receiving has not caused me to lose any hair although I can tell it has slowed the growth of the hair on my body.
Chemo Compromises Your Immune System
Since chemo attacks your cells, it also kills the good cells in your immune system. This increases the risk for infections and illness. The severity and risk varies by person and the drug, but this is often why cancer patients may wear a mask, avoid large crowds, or deny certain gifts like flowers.
Side Effects Can Be Serious and Last a Lifetime
Many side effects are temporary and go away once chemo is complete, but some drugs can cause serious and permanent damage.
Part of my treatment includes an echo-cardiogram every 3 months to make sure my heart is functioning correctly since some of the drugs included in my regimen can be particularly hard on the heart. Another condition I have been lucky to avoid, but continue to watch for is neuropathy; a progressive and often irreversible condition featuring pain, numbness, tingling, and sensitivity in the fingers and toes of individuals receiving chemo.
Some Chemo Drugs Cause Cancer
WTF, right!? This is exactly what I thought when my oncologist explained there is a small risk of developing leukemia from certain types of chemo. As a cancer patient, learning this feels so defeating; the drug that is suppose to help kill your cancer is also the drug that could give you more cancer!
Cancer Does Not Always Respond to Chemo
I knew this was a possibility for my situation but I couldn’t even entertain that thought. And luckily I didn’t have to until I met a fellow breast cancer patient at Mayo Clinic who shared with me that her cancer hardly responded to her chemotherapy treatment. They even tried different combinations, but unfortunately her cancer just continued to grow. This is a devastating outcome.
Some People Choose Not To Have Chemo
Although this was not my choice, I have to respect those who do not choose chemotherapy as part of their treatment. Because it's like picking your poison. I remember feeling so torn about my first infusion; on one hand I was so ready for those drugs to flow into my veins and kick cancers ass. On the other, I felt like ripping the IV out of my port and dumping those evil fluids down the drain.
You don't have to memorize everything there is to know about chemo. That would be impossible. But having a better understanding will help you empathize and support those you know in chemotherapy treatment. And if you still have questions, just ask them because everyone's experience is different.