Body

Everything you need to know about Chemotherapy

Knowledge is power when facing chemo treatment.

By Donna Fleming

Cancer is a very scary word. For many people, another word that strikes fear into their hearts is chemotherapy. The thought of having this drug treatment can be terrifying, but it helps to know what is involved.

• Chemotherapy uses special anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells while doing the least possible damage to normal cells. The drugs go through the body, rather than directly to the site of the cancer, which means the whole body can be affected.

• If you also need surgery, such as in the case of breast cancer, chemotherapy is usually given afterwards. But in some cases, it will be given beforehand to try to shrink a tumour.

• Chemotherapy regimes depend on the type of cancer you have. It is usually given in cycles, so you have a period of time when you undergo treatment, followed by a recovery period, before starting again.

• You might need treatment daily, several times a week or weekly. It can last for a few months through to the best part of a year in some cases.

• The drugs can be administered intravenously or in tablet form, or a combination of both. The medication can be administered via a port or catheter – tubes inserted into the body in a surgical procedure and left in place while you are undergoing treatment.

• Having intravenous (IV) chemotherapy involves going to a hospital or clinic and having an infusion of drugs via a needle. The needle is inserted into your hand or lower arm and removed once the session is over.

• IV chemotherapy can take anywhere from one to several hours. Hospitals usually set up rooms for patients with armchairs, TVs and magazines. You can also take books, laptops and tablets or puzzles to help pass time.

• If your chemotherapy is in pill form, you can take it at home.

• You might also be given other drugs in conjunction with chemo, such as those that strengthen the immune system or help to prevent nausea.

• Possible side effects include nausea and vomiting, fatigue, hair loss, increased risk of infection and bleeding, diarrhoea, skin changes and a sore mouth. If you have any problems, you must let your doctor know.

• You may feel unwell in the first week or so after the drugs are given to you, but will start to feel like normal again after 2 to 3 weeks.

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What happens when you go in for chemo
• You’ll sign in, then your blood pressure, pulse, temperature and respiration rate will be taken.
• Your weight and height will be recorded to calculate the appropriate dose of medicine.

• If you don’t have a port or catheter, an IV line will be put in.

• Blood will be taken and a red and white blood cell count.

• You may be given medication to prevent nausea. You may also be given fluids, which help some chemo drugs to work more effectively.

• Once the amount of drugs you need has been calculated, the infusion will start. When it finishes, a nurse will check your vital signs.

• You must tell your doctor about any medication or supplements you are on before having chemo, as they can interact with the chemo drugs.

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