Traditional Medical Treatments and the Side Effects of Drugs
A thesis written by Pat Alves

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So what can be done for cancer recovery? This question can be answered two ways. First, information about cancer can be obtained from The American Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research, hospice, and your own oncologist who will be primarily responsible for the plan of your treatment. Chemotherapy may be one of the recommended treatments. It works by interrupting the cell cycle and prevents cells from reproducing. It will only work at the specific phase of the cell division. Several different drugs can be used together which will attack more cells at various stages of cell division. All chemotherapy drugs have been approved by the FDA through rigorous testing to determine which drugs are most effective for certain cancer situations. But what also has been discovered is that since the chemotherapy drugs cannot tell the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells, the drugs destroy all cells that are in that particular part of cell division it is targeted to disrupt. It is also most effective against rapidly reproducing cells, but, not being able to distinguish good from bad, can affect the hair, bone marrow, and mouth lining cells. There are side effects to be concerned about that could be simply unpleasant to life threatening (Altman and Sarg 61-62). Suppression of bone marrow is one dangerous side effect that is necessary for healthy white blood cells to help fight off infections. Johan Bjorksten, Ph.D., a prominent scientist from the University of Wisconsin, has shown that chemotherapy destroys the immune system beyond repair and increases risk for death from infectious causes (Quillin 29-31). Researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that the risk from chemotherapy causing leukemia outweighs the benefits of its therapy (qtd. in Quillin 29). Another very critical side effect through the use of chemotherapy is bone marrow depression, which can lead to anemia, greater risks for infection, and serious bleeding (Altman and Sarg 33). Chemotherapy drugs have warnings attached to the packaging and you should be advised that with use of various types of chemotherapy there is a chance of liver and heart damage, secondary malignancies may appear, and the individual who administers the treatment is also at risk for birth defects (qtd. in Quillin 31). Radiation therapy would be the next type of treatment offered and is given to about sixty percent of all cancer patients (Quillin 10). Radiation works by killing and eliminating cancer cells and is targeted to the DNA within the cancer cells (Altman and Sarg 231). Long-term side effects of radiation include birth defects and infertility. Radiation can also cause damage to the lining of the intestines that can cause difficulty in the nutritional, fluid, and electrolyte absorption (Keane and Chace 228). Surgery is the most desirable treatment for about sixty-seven percent of all cancer patients. This is thought to bring the best success for removal of a cancerous mass. Unfortunately, because of the nature of cancer growth, it is not always possible to remove all cells or tissue because the tumor is not always in one isolated area. Any remaining cells could re-infect the body (Quillin 10).

Side effects of chemotherapy

One of the most common side effects related to chemotherapy is fatigue. Fatigue is a feeling of tiredness and lack of energy. Fatigue faced by cancer patients differs greatly from fatigue faced by normal people. Rest does not always relive this kind of fatigue and it can last for days, weeks or months.

Chemotherapy can sometimes damage nerves that can produce a burning sensation or a tingling or shooting pain. Most often this pain occurs in the toes and fingers of the patient. Pain is not faced by everyone who undergoes chemotherapy, but is fairly common. If you feel pain, you do not have top panic because this pain can be relieved. You should inform your doctor about the pain and describe it as accurately as you can, and the doctor can give you appropriate pain medicine.

Hair Loss:
Another very common side effect of chemotherapy is hair loss, which is also known as alopecia. Not all drugs cause hair loss and you can ask your doctor whether the drug you are going to be taking ill cause hair loss or not. Hair loss usually begins several weeks into the treatment and can occur in all parts of the body – underarms, head, face, and legs. In some cases, it so happens that the hair grows back in a different color or texture so you must not be alarmed by such an occurrence.

Nausea and Vomiting:
Often, patients who undergo chemotherapy face feelings of nausea and vomiting, but new drugs considerably reduce such feelings. Different drugs work for different people ad your doctor may be able to advice you on which drug is best suited for you. Make sure you inform your doctor is the feeling of nausea is extreme or vomiting occurs fairly frequently.

Radiation Recall:
Some people who have previously undergone radiation develop a side effect known as radiation recall during their chemotherapy treatment. What actually happens in radiation recall is that the area of skin that had previously been exposed to radiation turns red – the red can be of any shade ranging from bright to dark red. You should inform your doctor about such an occurrence. Radiation recall may last from a few hours to several days.

Some other side effects caused by chemotherapy are:

Kidney and bladder effects
Blood clotting
Fluid retention
Flu-like symptoms
Low platelet count
Mouth, gum and throat problems
Central nervous system problems
Skin and nail effects

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy:
Some people experience severe side effects from radiation treatment while others do not experience any side effects at all. The side effects you face, as in chemotherapy, depend greatly on the type and length of the radiation treatment. There are two types of side effects that may occur – chronic or acute. Chronic side effects are the ones that take a long time to develop and are usually permanent. Acute side effects are those that develop immediately.
Some common side effects of radiation therapy are mentioned below:

Skin Problems:
Sometimes the skin under treatment may turn red and blotchy as if it has been sunburned. This area may also be itchy and irritating. You should seek advice from doctor on how to reduce this itchiness and discomfort.

Sometime the skin may have a ‘moist reaction’, which means that the area of skin exposed to radiation may become wet and sore. It is of utmost importance to inform your doctor of such an occurrence and the doctor will assist you in caring for these areas and preventing them from infection.

Side Effects on Blood:
Side effects can occur in the blood as well. Radiation therapy can lessen your white blood cells and platelets. In some cases, Radiation therapy may also lower levels of red blood cells. Your doctor may temporarily discontinue the radiation treatment in case of such an occurrence and wait till the cell count is back to normal.

Changes in Eating Habits:
Patients who undergo radiation treatment may face a loss of appetite. Radiation therapy also interferes with digestion. You may lose weight during radiation therapy. Sometimes it is also painful to chew, so the doctor may recommend a liquid diet. During radiation therapy, you should eat a well balanced diet and eat smaller amounts of food more often than you usually do.

Emotional Effects of Radiation Treatment:
Fairly often, patients who are exposed to radiation have feeling of depression and anxiety, loneliness and helplessness. Radiation treatment affects your hormones and a hormone imbalance often causes such feelings. You may find it helpful to talk about your feelings in cases of mental distress or discomfort.

Some other side effects of radiation therapy are:

Effects on fertility
Effects on neck and hair
Effects on the chest
Mouth and throat problems