Chemotherapy is what everyone thinks of when we talk about cancer treatment. While surgery and radiation target the specific part(s) of the body where your tumour is located, chemotherapy, which is often given intravenously, works throughout your whole body.
The goal of chemotherapy may be to cure (remove all cancer from your body), to control (stop your cancer from growing / spreading), or to palliate (reduce the symptoms caused by cancer). Your oncologist will outline these goals, as well as determine what type of chemotherapy is best for your cancer. Once your treatment has been outlined and you know what chemotherapeutic drugs will be used, we can then discuss the most common side-effects, how to prepare, how to care for yourself as you go through treatment, and what to do to support recovery.
Often a combination of a number of chemotherapeutic drugs will be used, as different drugs act against cancer cells in different ways. Using a few drugs in combination helps to improve the synergistic effects of the chemotherapy drugs, while minimizing toxicity (as using these drugs in combination often means you do not need as high a dose of any single drug). This can also help reduce the chances that your cancer will become resistant to treatment. Your oncologist will try to avoid using combinations of drugs that have similar side-effects when possible. The better you feel through treatment and the more your cancer responds to treatment, the better your long-term outcomes will be.
Most people want to know how they are going to feel during chemo, which is an important question! Since chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, there are a higher number potential side-effects (which will be outlined below). However, another thing to think about when you are preparing for treatment is your dosing schedule, meaning how often are you going to the hospital or clinic for infusions.
Your dosing schedule is usually referred to as a “cycle”, and these cycles are often 2-3 weeks in length. This means you will go to the hospital for an infusion, and then have a few weeks without any treatment. These breaks between infusions are important as they allow time for your healthy cells to recover from the side-effects of the drugs. Occasionally you may be put on a dose-dense cycle in which you will receive the same dose but with shorter breaks between, or fractionated cycles where your dose is divided into multiple infusions which are done more frequently.
A big part of preparing for chemotherapy is understanding the expected benefits, risks, and options you have so you can feel well-informed about your decisions as you move forward.
What is the goal of chemotherapy for my cancer?
What are the chances that this treatment will work?
How will I know if chemo is working?
What will happen if chemo doesn’t work?
Are there any other treatment options?
What can I expect from chemotherapy?
What will treatment look like?
What chemo drugs will you use?
What are the risks and side-effects?
Will chemo change my ability to have children in the future?
How will chemo be given to me?
How often will I get chemo?
How long will treatment last?
How should I prepare for chemotherapy?
Do I need to change my diet?
Will I be able to do my same daily activities?
Do I need to take time off of work?
Knowing what chemotherapeutic drugs you will be treated with, as well as how often you will receive treatment, allows us to strategize and create a supportive treatment plan that is safe, and that checks-in with you at appropriate intervals. Ensuring you are as strong and healthy as you can be before chemotherapy starts goes a long way in helping you to feel as well as you can and tolerate treatment, so you can get the most benefit out of this.
So what side-effects will we consider and help to reduce as you move into chemotherapy? Chemotherapy affects cells as they divide, so there are certain healthy cells that are more likely to be affected by chemotherapy than others, including hair follicles, cells in your mouth and digestive tract, cells of your reproductive system, and cells in your bone marrow that form new blood. There are also a few organs that are more vulnerable to damage, such as your kidneys, heart, lungs, bladder, and nervous system. This means our priority when supporting you during chemotherapy is to not only reduce side-effects that can affect your daily life, but also help protect your body from damage that may show up in the future. While each drug has a slightly different side-effect profile, most have overlapping side-effects including:
Changes in mood, memory, and ability to concentrate
Depending on the type of cancer you have, and the drugs you are being treated with, there are naturopathic treatment options that may not only help you better tolerate treatment, but that can also help increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy (helping to make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapeutic drugs, to kill them more effectively).
This is also the time when it’s most important to have a naturopathic doctor who is educated and well-informed of chemotherapy treatments, as we do not want you do be on anything that could interfere with treatment or put you at risk of complications / interactions.
The good news is that many side-effects of chemotherapy will pass once treatment is completed, however the rate at which these side-effects fade can be quite variable. If chemo causes damage to any of the organs listed above (that are more susceptible to damage), you may be facing long-term side-effects. For this reason, screening for and addressing any risk factors for long-term complications is a key part of aftercare.
Often once chemotherapy is completed you are not required to go to the hospital as frequently and are released to recover. This is a great time to check-in with your naturopathic doctor to assess how your body responded to treatment, what side-effects you experienced, and what effects you may be at risk for long-term. Once this has been determined we can work toward actively supporting your recovery and moving you into the next stage of life so you can return to the things in your life that you value most, instead of just focusing on day-to-day survival.
Every patient will need a different combination of support options as they prepare for chemo and move into recovery. This is why there’s so much benefit to speaking with your naturopathic doctor before you begin chemotherapy as prevention can often go a long way in reducing your risk of complications and side-effects.
If you’re in the midst of a cancer diagnosis and are preparing for or recovering from chemotherapy don’t hesitate to reach out to us with questions, or to book a complimentary 15 minute meet-and-greet with one of our practitioners.