Because the word chemotherapy is intertwined with a diagnosis of cancer, it has become a very daunting term. Realistically the treatment of innumerable diseases includes drug therapy on some level. Countless temporary and permanent conditions from an ear infection to mental illness to diabetes are cured or at least controlled for the long term with pharmacological agents. The same holds true for cancer in many cases. Chemotherapeutic agents used to treat cancer are toxic to some degree to a patient's normal healthy cells as well resulting in harsh side effects often experienced while undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
Simply put chemotherapy is the drug (or chemical) therapy portion of any cancer treatment protocol. Many of which also include surgery, radiation and more recently hormone therapy, immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy including gene therapy. Technological and pharmacological advances over the past couple of decades have reduced a diagnosis of many types of cancer from a death sentence to a very winnable battle. A diagnosis of even the most devastating cancers can now have an extended prognosis compared to years past thanks to chemotherapy treatments available.
The American Cancer Society recognizes eight groups of chemotherapy drugs including a miscellaneous category. With the copious amount of ongoing research these groups are continually being modified. A chemotherapy drug is classified based on how it works to retard cell growth, where it works in the cell, and when it works in a cells' growth cycle. Luckily and unfortunately cancer cells grow and divide more rapidly than normal cells. This is unfortunate in that it can be a devastating disease. However, this feature does allow the cancer cells to be more affected by chemotherapies than normal healthy cells.
Exposure of these powerful drugs to the body in general leads to their side effects. Because chemotherapy drugs are unable to distinguish between normally rapidly dividing cells in your body and cancerous cells, both are affected by them. Chemotherapy drugs are more toxic to cancer cells in that the body is usually able to repair the damage inflicted upon normal cells. A patient is administered a chemotherapeutic agent or combination of agents to hopefully destroy the cancerous cells and in doing so, some healthy cells become casualties. But once treatment is stopped and the drug(s) eliminated from the body, it can begin to repair damage to those once healthy normal cells.
An example of this is the quickly multiplying normal cells of the hair follicle leading to the common and stereotypical side effect of chemotherapy, alopecia (hair loss). Once the chemotherapy treatment has ended, hair will begin to grow back. Other common side effects include but are not limited to nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth sores, increased infection risk due to immune system damage, infertility, fatigue, dry skin or rashes, and the above mentioned alopecia. The occurrence of side effects varies from individual to individual. Some may experience multiple side effects, while others only a few. There are now options for treating these many of these side effects that has made chemotherapy treatment more tolerable.
With the advances being made due to today's cancer research, hopefully chemotherapy treatment will one day sooner than later be looked upon as barbaric. The justification for bombarding a cancer patient's healthy cells with toxic therapies may one day become a very difficult argument to defend. Dedicated and talented scientists devote their lives to researching and developing new, more effective and safer treatments for cancer so that optimistically the term chemotherapy can take on a more positive connotation.