What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a kind of treatment that uses drugs to attack cancer cells. It is called a “systemic treatment” since the drug, entering through the blood stream, travels throughout the body and kills cancer cells at their sites. The drugs may rarely be intended to have a local effect, but in most cases, the intention is to destroy cancer cells wherever they may exist in the body.
Chemotherapeutic drugs are chemically designed to target cells that are dividing and growing rapidly. Once they reach the cancer cells, they act to retard their growth, eventually resulting in their destruction.
Chemotherapy may be given at home, in a clinic or in a hospital. The frequency of chemotherapy can be daily, weekly, monthly or an on-
At present more than 50 anticancer drugs have been discovered. They are used in several ways:
• Monotherapy or only one drug
• Combination chemotherapy or a group of drugs which work together
• Combined modality or chemotherapy along with other treatment such as surgery and radiotherapy
The drugs are delivered to the affected cells in the following forms:
• Oral (tablet form, by mouth)
• Intravenous or Intramuscular (injected by needle into a vein or muscle)
• Intrathecal chemotherapy (injected through a needle in the back)
Since chemotherapy also affects normal actively dividing cells such as those in the bone marrow, the gastrointestinal tract, the reproductive system and in the hair follicles, most patients experience some degree of side effects, which may include any or all of the following:
• Nausea and vomiting: This is a common side effect of chemotherapy. It can be controlled with anti-
• Fatigue: Chemotherapy affects different people in different ways. Some find they can lead fairly normal lives during treatment, but many find they become tired and have to take things more slowly. Just do as much as you can and be careful not to over-
• Hair loss: This is the least harmful side effect, yet can be the hardest to bear. The use of a cold compress around the scalp when taking chemotherapy helps stop hair loss to some extent. Hair will grow back surprisingly quickly once treatment is over.
• Susceptibility to infections: When the drugs act on cancer cells, they also destroy normal cells including white blood cells, which fight infections. When white blood cells are in short supply, the body’s immune system is weakened making you susceptible to infections. Any fever should be reported so that your doctor can prescribe antibiotics.
• Decrease in blood cell count: During chemotherapy, you may become anemic. Regular blood tests are done to ensure this does not happen. If necessary, blood transfusions are given.
• Mouth sores and ulcers: Some chemotherapy drugs cause sores and ulcers in the mouth. Regular use of a mouthwash is very important.
It should be emphasized that side effects depend on the type and number of drugs used, that individuals react very differently, and that all side effects are temporary and disappear once treatment is completed.
What is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy involves the use of carefully targeted doses of x-
Radiotherapy can be given in two ways, either as external beam radiotherapy (external radiotherapy) or as a radioactive implant (internal radiotherapy).
External Radiotherapy: This treatment involves the high energy rays being directed to the cancer by various machines which include cobalt 60, linear accelerator and betatron. The dosage and duration of the treatment depend on the patient’s weight and general health, the type, size and location of the tumour and whether surgery and chemotherapy have been used or are planned in the future. A typical course lasts 4 to 6 weeks with treatment for 5 days per week and a weekend break to allow time for normal cells to recover and rebuild. The attending physician checks the patient’s progress to measure the total radiation delivered.
Radiotherapy is not at all painful. It is very similar to a x-
Internal Radiotherapy: This kind of Radiation Therapy is given by inserting radioactive needles or wires into the tumour while the patient is under general anesthesia. Over a few days, a high dose of radiotherapy is given directly to the tumour from the inside rather than a lower daily dose from the external source over a longer period of time.
The treatment must be administered as an in-
Risks and Side Effects: Common side effects include any or all of the following:
• Fatigue: The body uses a lot of energy during treatment due to stress, regular trips to hospital and the repair work to normal cells exposed to radiation. The best way to handle fatigue is to limit activities and increase sleep. Good nutrition is also very important.
• Skin Problems: The skin in the treatment area frequently becomes dry, itchy, darkened, red or tanned. Do not rub, scratch or scrub this skin. Ask the doctor for a lotion which will not interfere with treatment. Protect the skin from the sun.
• Hair Loss: Hair loss generally occurs in the area of treatment. The hair will regrow when therapy is complete.
• Loss of Appetite: This may be caused by nausea, stomach pain, change in taste and difficulties in swallowing. Maintain a balanced diet and eat whenever possible. A soft diet is best and plenty of nourishing liquids like milk, soup and coconut water. Smoking, drinking alcohol and eating hot, spicy food should be avoided.
• Digestive Tract Problems: Upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea and constipation have been observed when radiation is being delivered to the lower abdominal area. Most of these problems can be controlled with medication, which the doctor will prescribe.
• Effect on Sexual and Reproductive Function: Radiation therapy, when applied to reproductive organs can cause a decrease in the number of sperm or viable ova, reducing the ability to fertilise. There may be a possible decrease in sexual desire and impotence in men.
• Lymphodema: The swelling of the arm due to damaged axillary lymphatic vessels either by surgery or radiation causes the lymph to collect in the lower arm. Lack of vessels and the force of gravity make it difficult to pump the fluid back into circulation causing swelling and discomfort. Take special care to avoid infection and injury to the affected arm.
As with chemotherapy, it should be emphasised that side effects vary from patient to patient and range from none to very serious. Most effects are temporary and disappear once treatment is completed.
What is Bone Marrow Transplant?
Bone marrow is a soft fatty tissue found inside the bones. It produces blood cells (red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells). When the patient develops disease of the blood cells (anemia, leukemia, or lymphoma) or when cancer treatment like chemotherapy and radiation therapy damages or destroys the bone marrow, a transplant with healthy bone marrow is needed to save the patient’s life. Patients also need bone marrow transplants when they have dangerously low white blood cells (which are needed to fight infection) as a result of cancer treatment.
What the Procedure Involves:
First a donor is identified through a process called HLA tissue typing. The best match is a twin, a brother or sister and finally an unrelated person. The patient is given a high dose of chemotherapy to destroy all the bone marrow in the body. Bone marrow is taken from the donor in the operating room under general anesthesia. Some of patient’s bone marrow is removed from the top of the hipbone (iliac crest). The bone marrow is filtered, treated, and transplanted immediately or frozen and stored for later use. The donor’s bone marrow is transfused into the patient through a vein (IV line) and is naturally transported back into the bone cavities where it grows quickly to replace the old bone marrow. This is called allogeneic bone marrow transplant.
In a newer version of the therapy, called autologous bone marrow transplant, the bone marrow is taken from the patient himself, treated with drugs to kill any cancer cells and frozen. This is later thawed and transfused back into the patient after initial high dose chemotherapy.
The hospitalization period for bone marrow transplant is from 4 to 6 weeks, during which time the patient is isolated and strictly monitored because of the increased risk of infection. The legs in particular are moved often to reduce the risk of deep venous thrombosis. Besides the usual risks associated with any kind or surgery, such as reaction to medication and problems of breathing due to the effect of anaesthesia, bleeding and infection during surgery itself, there are additional risks associated with bone marrow transplants. The major problem with allogeneic transplants is graft versus host disease. This is the opposite of graft rejection seen in other organ transplants where the body rejects the organ as a foreign body. In this case, the transplanted bone marrow attacks the host cells as though they were foreign organisms and drugs to suppress the immune system (immunosuppressive medications) must be taken indefinitely, weakening the body’s ability to fight infections.
The patient will require attentive follow-
Another promising development is called peripheral blood stem cell transplantation. In this, stem cells (the precursor blood cells from which all blood cells develop) are removed from the patient before treatment and returned after chemotherapy or may be received from a donor.
Bone marrow transplant patients are usually treated in highly specialized centers and the patient stays in a special nursing unit to limit exposure to infections. In India, bone marrow transplant is offered only at a few centres, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi and Christian Medical College, Vellore.
What is Hormone Therapy?
Hormones are chemicals secreted by the body. These chemicals are responsible for controlling physical development from puberty to old age. Some types of tumours require the presence of hormones to grow. Doctors try to kill such tumours by manipulating the body’s hormone supply. This involves administering a hormone or hormone-
In earlier forms of the therapy, organs responsible for hormone production, ovaries in the case of women and testes in the case of men, as well as the adrenal glands were removed. This resulted in severe physical and psychological side effects including hot flashes, increased risk of heart disease, men growing breasts and facial hair in women.
Thanks to some new drugs, treatment can stem hormone supply without these unacceptable side effects. Tumour cells have proteins that sit on the cell surface and combine chemically with hormones in the bloodstream, taking them inside and using them to grow. These proteins are called receptor sites. The new drugs compete with hormones for these sites. They are taken into the cell in preference to the hormone and kill the cancer cell from within. The most successful example of this is Tamoxifen, a drug used for breast cancer therapy, which competes with estrogen, a hormone needed by breast cancer cells for growth.
The tumour must first be tested for the presence of estrogen receptors to ascertain whether they will respond. A positive test means that the cell has estrogen receptors and that the cancer depends on hormones to grow and so is likely to shrink with hormone manipulation. The more the receptors, the better the chance of success. Tamoxifen may be used along with another hormone deprivation drug, called aminogluthethimide, which targets the adrenal glands, another hormone producing site. Steroids may be needed while therapy is going on, but once therapy is stopped, the adrenal glands will again start normal functioning.
In an analogous case, the drug Leuprolide has been used to treat prostate cancer by starving tumours of testosterone. However the effect may not last for very long. After a year or two, the body becomes immune to hormone suppression and the cancer could become resistant to the therapy. So doctors are beginning to use a drug like flutamide along with leuprolide to ensure a more complete deprivation of the male hormone. This therapy is especially useful for men who cannot have surgery.
The real value of hormone therapy is in combination with other therapies. They may be used before surgery to shrink a tumour to an operable size or after surgery to mop up or control cells that escaped the scalpel. In some cases this may be enough, but in others, chemotherapy may still be indicated to finish the job. However, less toxic doses of these drugs may then be required.
Although side effects to hormone therapy are far milder than those to chemotherapy, they should not be dismissed. Men may notice softened skin or larger breasts, while women may develop a lowered voice. Hot flashes can be relieved by daily doses of Vitamin E. Weight gain from steroids can be reversed by taking a low sodium diet and regular exercise. These side effects are all reversible. Side effects must be closely monitored to determine how the treatment is working. If you experience bone pain, for example, it could be an indication that hormones are affecting distant sites. Reporting such side effects to the doctor is very important.
Breast Self Examination
Breast self examination (BSE) is a simple, painless procedure that women can carry out by themselves at home, to detect any changes occurring in their breast. It has been proven to be an effective early detection technique for breast cancer.
Some facts about BSE: The focus of a BSE is not on finding a lump, but on NOT finding it. The idea is to familiarize yourself with your breasts in their normal state so that you will notice a difference.
• BSE should be performed every month from the age of 20.
• Women who regularly do a BSE, learn to identify how their breasts should feel and are more likely to detect even small changes at an earlier stage.
• Women themselves discover nearly 95% of all cancerous lumps.
• 80% of all breast lumps found through BSE do not turn out to be cancerous.
• Doctors are not necessarily as good at finding lumps in a patient’s breast as the patient herself.
• Women who perform BSE are likely to find lumps as small as ¼ to ½ inch in diameter as opposed to 1 ½ inches in the case of women who do not. This makes a difference of 6 months to a year in the start of treatment, and consequently, in the chances of a favourable outcome.
• BSE should be performed at the same time each month. A good time is just as the menstrual period is ending when the breasts are least sensitive.