The word “chemotherapy” has a very negative connotation for many people. It conjures up images of hair loss, hospital beds, nausea, and pain. And yet, despite the way people view chemotherapy, it is still considered one of the standard treatments accepted by the medical community for many forms of cancer. Why is this? What does chemotherapy do that fights cancer but causes so many negative side effects at the same time?
What is Cancer?
To fully understand the reasons and theories behind chemotherapy, we must first understand the nature of cancer. Though malignant cancers can occur in many different areas of the body and affect many different organ systems, they all share certain defining characteristics. Cancer, by definition, is the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells which exhibits a trait called metastasis. Metastasis is the process by which cancer cells break off from a primary tumor, spread to another area or organ, and grow into another tumor. This is the reason why cancer is so deadly – a malignant cancer will eventually spread throughout the body.
How Chemotherapy Fights Cancer
Chemotherapy drugs target the ability of cancer cells to grow. Many are designed to cause cells to essentially self-destruct. These chemotherapeutic agents inhibit the process called mitosis, the method by which cells divide and reproduce. Because of this, chemotherapy is generally more effective in the early stages of a particular tumor or cancer, when cell-division is occurring rapidly and predictably. As a tumor ‘matures,’ the cancer cells begin to lose the cell structures which regulate the reproductive process, making them much less susceptible to chemotherapy treatments. Certain cancers are also more resistant to chemotherapy because they have slower growth rates.
The Side Effects
The side effects of chemotherapy are well known. It is perhaps appropriate and ironic that one of the first chemotherapeutic agents was derived from the mustard gas used as a chemical weapon in World War II. Scientist discovered that people exposed to mustard gas showed extremely low white blood cell counts, and theorized that such an effect might be effective in the treatment of rapidly growing cancer cells.
The problem, of course, is that a chemotherapeutic drug is generally unable to differentiate effectively between healthy cells and cancer cells, killing both indiscriminately. This is the source of many side effects associated with chemotherapy, such as pain, nausea, and weakness. Even now, researchers are attempting to find ways to allow chemotherapy to target and attack only cancer cells, efforts which are mostly, as of yet, unsuccessful.
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