Anti-cancer drugs are used to treat various types of cancers in the body with success, but they also have side effects that need to be watched.
There are various drugs used to combat cancer and to provide a definite cure, or to provide relief from the symptoms of cancer. These drugs are either used for eliminating cancer cells entirely, or for putting an end to their growth and spread. Some of the most common questions that patients ask about the drugs are associated with the efficacy, mechanism of action and the possible side effects of drugs used for treating cancer. All of this information is critically important in preparing the various treatment options that can be used on a patient, or as means of preparation prior to the initiation of treatment.
This particular group of drugs is responsible for the interaction with the main cell cycle mechanism portion of the genetic material (RNA and DNA), ultimately eliminating cancerous cells that have the potential to grow and spread at a rapid pace. There are a number of well-known, yet notorious, side effects which are associated with chemotherapy. Some of these side effects include nausea, loss of hair, and a compromised immune system resulting in poor defense against infections. The compromised immune system results from the fact that chemotherapy not only affects cancerous cells, but also involves the healthy cells of the body. It has been noted that cells which have the potential to grow rapidly are at the greatest risks of being affected by chemotherapy. These cells include blood forming cells, cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, hair follicles and others. The complete list of all the side effects that are associated with the use of chemotherapy is extensive. It is possible that many patients do not experience a number of these side effects, or only report a selected few.
It is true that chemotherapy has a pronounced effect on the overall lives of those individuals who have experienced it. Patients undergoing chemotherapy generally have to alter and modify their routine and daily activities such as employment, education, diet, personal and social interactions, and general activity levels. One of the greatest factors that contribute to the well-being of a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy is consistent support and encouragement from family and friends. This helps the patient cope with all the hardships that may accompany this particular form of treatment. Most of the side effects caused by chemotherapy can be reversed and resolved; but, there are certain long term side effects which may or may never be entirely resolved. These include damage to the reproductive system and the heart.
How Chemotherapy May Affect You
Chemotherapy affects people in different ways. How you feel depends on:
•The type of chemotherapy you are getting
•The dose of chemotherapy you are getting
•Your type of cancer
•How advanced your cancer is
•How healthy you are before treatment
Since everyone is different and people respond to chemotherapy in different ways, your doctor and nurses cannot know for sure how you will feel during chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy Can Cause Side Effects
Chemotherapy not only kills fast-growing cancer cells, but also kills or slows the growth of healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. Examples are cells that line your mouth and intestines and those that cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects, such as mouth sores, nausea, and hair loss. Side effects often get better or go away after you have finished chemotherapy.
The most common side effect is fatigue, which is feeling exhausted and worn out. You can prepare for fatigue by:
•Asking someone to drive you to and from chemotherapy
•Planning time to rest on the day of and day after chemotherapy
•Asking for help with meals and childcare on the day of and at least one day after chemotherapy
This is the group of drugs which is responsible for blocking the production of those hormones which promote certain forms of cancer for instance thyroid cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer, prostate cancer and others. Females who have been diagnosed with cancer that are estrogen-dependent in nature are required to take hormonal therapy in order to either halt the progress of metastatic cancers, or to prevent the formation of new tumors in the body. There are a number of drugs that can effectively block the production of estrogen in the body which are easily available and can be used as part of the cancer treatment therapies. In other cases, surgical intervention involving the complete removal of the ovaries from the body may be necessary to eliminate the cancer cells.
Women who have not undergone menopause may experience menopause either abruptly or shortly after they start hormonal therapy for cancer treatment. However, this is a reversible condition unless the ovaries of the patient have been surgically removed. The kind of side effects that women who have had menopause experience depends entirely upon the nature and dosage of the drug that has been administered. Some of the most common side effects include loss of bone density and frequent hot flashes.
Men who have been diagnosed with cancer of the prostate are required to take drugs that halt the formation of hormones known as androgens. Some of the most common side effects in this case may include hot flashes, loss of libido, osteoporosis, impaired sexual function, tenderness and enlargement of the breasts and sudden weight gain. Many of these side effects are reversible and can be resolved entirely once the therapy has been completed.
Immunotherapy and biological therapy:
Within the last few years, new groups of drugs that can effectively combat cancer have been developed. Biological therapy, immunotherapy and biological response modifiers are all the same drugs which, with the assistance of the immune system, eliminate all the cancerous cells that are present in the body. Monoclonal antibodies, interferons and interleukins are some of the most widely used immunotherapy agents today. Gene therapy and different vaccines for cancer are still an active part of the clinical trials being researched for cancer cures. The side effects of these drugs are entirely dependent upon the form of therapy used on the patient. Some of the most common side effects include decreased blood pressure, fever, chills, fatigue, swelling or a rash at the site of the injection, nausea, vomiting, muscle and bone pain, and complete or partial loss of appetite.
Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your immune system fight cancer. The immune system helps your body fight infections and other diseases. It is made up of white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system.
Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy. Biological therapy is a type of treatment that uses substances made from living organisms to treat cancer.
•Types of Immunotherapy
•Who Receives Immunotherapy
•How Immunotherapy Works against Cancer
•Immunotherapy Can Cause Side Effects
•How Immunotherapy Is Given
•Where You Go for Your Treatment
•How Often You Will Receive Treatment
•How Immunotherapy Makes You Feel
•How to Tell Whether Immunotherapy Is Working
Types of Immunotherapy
Many different types of immunotherapy are used to treat cancer. They include:
•Monoclonal antibodies, which are drugs that are designed to bind to specific targets in the body. They can cause an immune response that destroys cancer cells.
Other types of monoclonal antibodies can “mark” cancer cells so it is easier for the immune system to find and destroy them. These types of monoclonal antibodies may also be referred to as targeted therapy. See Precision Medicine and Targeted Therapy for more information.
•Adoptive cell transfer, which is a treatment that attempts to boost the natural ability of your T cells to fight cancer. T cells are a type of white blood cell and part of the immune system. Researchers take T cells from the tumor. They then isolate the T cells that are most active against your cancer or modify the genes in them to make them better able to find and destroy your cancer cells. Researchers then grow large batches of these T cells in the lab.
You may have treatments to reduce your immune cells. After these treatments, the T cells that were grown in the lab will be given back to you via a needle in your vein. The process of growing your T cells in the lab can take 2 to 8 weeks, depending on how fast they grow.
•Cytokines, which are proteins that are made by your body’s cells. They play important roles in the body’s normal immune responses and also in the immune system’s ability to respond to cancer. The two main types of cytokines used to treat cancer are called interferons and interleukins.
•Treatment Vaccines, which work against cancer by boosting your immune system’s response to cancer cells. Treatment vaccines are different from the ones that help prevent disease.
•BCG, which stands for Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, is an immunotherapy that is used to treat bladder cancer. It is a weakened form of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. When inserted directly into the bladder with a catheter, BCG causes an immune response against cancer cells. It is also being studied in other types of cancer.
Cukier, Daniel, et al. 2006. Coping with Chemotherapy and Radiation. New York: McGraw-Hill.
This book is written by oncologists with the goal of helping people pre pare and manage their cancer treatment. It reviews the basics of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and provides guidance with regard to diet and lifestyle adjustment that may ease discomfort. Side effects of chemotherapy are reviewed by body system and by disease. Chapter 5 covers metastatic cancer, with a description of treatment for different body areas where metastases have been found. This is a comprehensive book that discusses many supportive-care concerns such as pain control, sexuality, and end-of-life issues.
Dodd, Marylin J. 2001. Managing the Side Eects of Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy. New ed. San Francisco: UCSF Nursing Press.
An oncology nurse who provides practical suggestions for managing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy wrote this book. Part 1 of the book is dedicated to chemotherapy and lists the drugs alphabetically with their specific signs, symptoms, and possible side effects. In addition, it reviews each side effect with a description, information
concerning duration, self-care measures, and guidance as to when to consult with a clinician.
Fromer, Margot Joan. 2004. The Journey to Recovery: A Complete Guide to Cancer Chemotherapy. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corp.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Approved Oncology Drugs. Access at: www.centerwatch.com/drug-information/fda-approvals/drug-areas.aspx?AreaID=12
The Food and Drug Administration provides access to a database of approved oncology drugs. Each entry links to an approval summary, clinical studies that were done on the drug, and a product label. Includes information on drugs in the approval process and on how to access drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA.
Chemocare.corn. Access at: www.chemocare.com
Scott Hamilton and the Cleveland Clinic present this comprehensive site of detailed information on chemotherapy. It includes detailed explanations about the science behind chemotherapy.
This article was originally published on 7/12/2014 and last revision and update of it was 9/14/2015.