New can­cer treat­ments lessen side ef­fects

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - YOUR DAILY BREAK - An­thony Ko­maroff Ask Dr. K

My mother was di­ag­nosed with can­cer and will soon be­gin chemo­ther­apy. I’d like to un­der­stand how chemo­ther­apy is given, and how it fights can­cer.

Chemo­ther­apy uses drugs that kill can­cer­ous cells, but only in­jure healthy cells. To un­der­stand chemo­ther­apy, you need to un­der­stand what can­cer is and what is dif­fer­ent about can­cer cells.

Our body con­tains 13 tril­lion cells. They all started from one cell, a cell that kept di­vid­ing. One cell be­came two, two be­came four, and so on. But the cells kept di­vid­ing in a care­fully con­trolled man­ner. Early in our lives (even be­fore we were born), they had to keep di­vid­ing so that we would grow larger. Af­ter we are fully formed adults, some cells need to di­vide to re­place dy­ing old cells with younger ones.

In con­trast, can­cer is the un­con­trolled growth of ab­nor­mal cells. Chemo­ther­apy (anti-can­cer) drugs kill can­cer cells or pre­vent them from grow­ing and di­vid­ing. The drugs reach al­most all parts of the body. This helps to kill can­cer cells that have spread from the orig­i­nal site of the can­cer.

Chemo­ther­apy is the core treat­ment for some can­cers. For other can­cers, it is part of a larger strat­egy along with ra­di­a­tion and/or surgery. Chemo­ther­apy of­ten re­quires a com­bi­na­tion of two or more dif­fer­ent anti-can­cer drugs. Can­cer spe­cial­ists (on­col­o­gists) de­sign chemo­ther­apy plans based on the can­cer be­ing treated and how far the can­cer has spread.

Can­cer chemo­ther­apy may be de­signed to:

• cure the can­cer;

• pre­vent the can­cer from re­cur­ring af­ter surgery;

• pre­vent the can­cer from spread­ing to other or­gans;

• de­crease the size of a tu­mor to make surgery eas­ier;

• shrink the size of in­cur­able can­cer to help re­lieve symp­toms.

Chemo­ther­apy drugs can be given in a hospi­tal, clinic, doc­tor’s of­fice or at home. For most peo­ple, a bag filled with the liq­uid drug is at­tached to a tube that is in­serted into a vein. The drug slowly drips into the pa­tient’s body. Some­times the pa­tient is able to swal­low a pill in­stead, or get chemo­ther­apy through an in­jec­tion. Peo­ple can re­ceive chemo­ther­apy daily, weekly or monthly.

Un­for­tu­nately, in ad­di­tion to at­tack­ing can­cer cells, chemo­ther­apy drugs also in­jure nor­mal, healthy cells. This can cause many side ef­fects.

Many anti-can­cer drugs, for ex­am­ple, af­fect the pro­duc­tion of blood cells. This in­cludes red blood cells that carry oxy­gen and platelets that help blood clot. Chemo­ther­apy also in­hibits the pro­duc­tion of white blood cells that fight in­fec­tion. That’s why a com­mon side ef­fect of chemo­ther­apy is in­creased sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to se­ri­ous in­fec­tions.

Other com­mon side ef­fects in­clude fa­tigue, nau­sea and vom­it­ing, di­ar­rhea, mouth sores, hair loss and rashes. Your mother’s doc­tor can help man­age many of these side ef­fects.

In re­cent years, med­i­cal sci­en­tists have de­vel­oped new treat­ments. Some tar­get the chem­i­cal changes in can­cer­ous cells that cause them to grow un­con­trol­lably. Oth­ers har­ness the body’s im­mune sys­tem to at­tack can­cer­ous cells. For cer­tain types of can­cers, these new ap­proaches ap­pear more ef­fec­tive, and less toxic, than chemo­ther­apy.

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