Chemotherapy for breast cancer patients

Breast Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy is a word guaranteed to strike fear in the heart of any newly-diagnosed breast cancer patient. But great advances have been made since the days when a course of chemo automatically led to total hair loss, debilitating nausea and extreme fatigue. Many people who receive chemotherapy these days report few serious side effects and say the treatment was nowhere near as awful as they’d feared.

Hair loss is the greatest concern of many female patients but it’s not inevitable and you may just experience a slight thinning of your hair, depending on what chemo drugs you receive. There are currently more than 100 different chemotherapy drugs each one of which acts in a different way so the side effects will vary from one patient to another, depending on that patient’s tolerance to the drugs and on the combination of chemical agents being used.

New chemo drugs are being trialled all the time and ongoing research is leading to the development of better cancer-fighting agents which target the cancer cells more effectively whilst reducing the side effects. The drugs work by preventing the division and growth of the rapidly dividing cancerous cells. Normal cells, including the ones responsible for hair growth, can be damaged in the process and it’s true that the side effects for some patients are extremely unpleasant. They can include hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, mouth and throat ulcers.

Some of these side effects can be lessened with the help of dietary supplements, complementary therapies and anti-nausea medication.

Concerns about the side effects of chemo are so overwhelming for some breast cancer sufferers that they refuse the treatment altogether in favour of less aggressive and invasive therapies. Unfortunately there are still many cases of patients being given a hard time by their doctors for refusing treatment (some have even been told they are clearly mentally unbalanced and need psychiatric help!). Of course it’s your absolute right to refuse any kind of treatment – just make sure you have a thorough understanding of the pros and cons of chemo so you don’t base your decision on irrational fears.

If you opt for chemotherapy it may be given in pill or liquid form, intravenously or with the use of a portable small pump that releases the drugs via a tube in the chest. The latter form of treatment, known as ambulatory chemotherapy, involves a minor day-case operation to insert a port (also called a port-a-cath) in the chest wall.

Depending on your individual treatment regime, the chemo may be administered either in hospital or at home and may take anything from under an hour to several hours. Each course of chemo consists of several cycles (usually between three and eight) with breaks in between each cycle to allow the body some recovery time.

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