Imagine that, assuming this were ever possible, you were sent into a large pen containing elephants and chickens and told to shoot tranquilizer darts at the elephants. That would be quite easy, probably, and you would not hurt any of the chickens since you would easily tell them apart from the elephants. Now imagine that you were sent into the same pen, now only with elephants, and asked to shoot at those with a mental disorder. That would be hard, mental disorder or not, those elephants might look quite alike. In shooting tranquilizer darts, you will hit some with the said mental disorder, but will inevitably hit some normal ones. That is the challenge in giving chemotherapy for cancer, compared to taking penicillin for a bacterial infection. Bacteria are very different from human cells. On the other hand, cancer cells are fundamentally human cells and have a lot in common with healthy cells.
When your oncologist recommends chemotherapy, he/she is actually looking out for you. He/she has thoroughly and carefully reviewed your case and determined that you are more likely to benefit, than to be harmed by chemotherapy. As an Oncologist, I engage in almost daily case discussions with colleagues, in which we agree that “benefits outweigh risks” or vice versa. Here I will address some “truths” that are important to keep in mind if chemotherapy is recommended for you:
- Chemotherapy does work, to treat and cure cancer. Consider HER2 positive breast cancer, that has gone from highly lethal to highly curable, with use of herceptin-based chemotherapy. Even incurable stage IV kidney cancer, now has the average individual surviving for years, with several treatments given in sequence.
- There can be side effects and some can be permanent. Again, in deciding whether to give chemotherapy, your Oncologist would have determined that you are more likely to benefit, than to be harmed. With close follow up and early reporting of side effects, many side effects can be controlled.
- There can be potentially life-threatening side effects. Fortunately, these are uncommon. Before a chemotherapy drug is approved (by the FDA in the USA), there’s some knowledge about such effects. Part of developing these drugs would include figuring out how to give them as safely as possible.
- The type and schedule of chemotherapy can differ. Some chemotherapy drugs work against different cancers, while some are more restricted to particular cancers. The number of cycles, and even frequency of dosing, may also vary, depending on the cancer type and stage.
- There has been much progress made in helping side effects. We know better, what sort of side effects may happen with chemotherapy. Medications are given early, to prevent such side effects. An example is use of anti-nausea medications with chemotherapy
- Chemotherapy comes in many different forms. Whether given into a vein, under the skin, or by mouth, any medication used to treat cancer falls in the category of chemotherapy and should be treated as such. It should be recognized that side effects can be seen, and that close oncology follow up is required whenever taking such medications.
Have you had any more thoughts about chemotherapy? Please feel free to leave a comment. If you found this helpful, do share freely with your friends. Hover over the bottom left of this page and click on ‘Follow’ to subscribe to my blog.