Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. The medicines target fast-growing cells, which include cancer cells. Chemotherapy is used on its own or in combination with other types of treatment.
Although chemotherapy destroys cancer cells, some healthy cells are also damaged. Fast-growing cells in the body other than cancer cells include cells in the hair, blood and lining of the mouth. Because of this, many chemotherapy medicines cause hair loss, low blood counts and mouth ulcers. Damage to blood cells can make children anaemic and susceptible to infections.
Chemotherapy is given in cycles. This allows time for the healthy cells to recover between treatments. Cycles may last 2–4 weeks each, and your child will need multiple cycles of chemotherapy.
Types of chemotherapy
There are many different types of chemotherapy medicines. Most children have combinations of different medicines.
Chemotherapy can be given in different ways, depending on the medicine:
- Oral chemotherapy can be taken as pills (tablets, capsules) or liquid. Your child can take this type of chemotherapy by mouth at home.
- Intravenous chemotherapy is injected into a vein. This involves inserting a needle into a vein, and then attaching the chemotherapy medicine to the needle and letting it enter the body slowly. Some chemotherapy treatments take several minutes; others work better when they are given slowly over a few hours.
- Intramuscular chemotherapy is injected straight into a large muscle, such as the thigh or upper arm.
- Intra-arterial chemotherapy is injected into an artery that supplies blood to the cancer.
- Intraperitoneal chemotherapy is injected into the belly.
- Intraventricular/Intrathecal chemotherapy is delivered directly into the cerebrospinal fluid through a special device.
- Subcutaneous chemotherapy is injected just under the skin, usually in the thigh or belly.
Although chemotherapy targets cancer cells, which grow faster than normal cells, some healthy cells are also affected. These include cells that normally grow quickly, such as cells in the hair and in the lining of the mouth.
Your child may experience some side effects because of the effects of chemotherapy on healthy cells. Chemotherapy affects each person differently – your child may experience none, some or many of these side effects:
- pain or soreness, such as headaches, muscle pain or nerve pain
- sores in the throat or mouth
- diarrhoea or constipation
- nausea and vomiting, and loss of appetite
- weight gain or weight loss
- hair loss
- blood cell disorders, such as low full blood counts, which may result in anaemia, dizziness, shortness of breath and increased risk of infection
- nervous system effects, such as tingling, burning or muscle weakness
- thinking or memory problems
- organ damage, especially in the long term, such as damage to the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs or reproductive system
- increased risk of other cancers in the long term.
Medicines and other treatments are available to help deal with many of these side effects. Your child’s doctor will discuss these with you. Side effects usually disappear when the treatment finishes.
Some of these side effects seem quite severe, and can be very distressing for you and your child. However, the benefits of chemotherapy usually outweigh the risks. Your child’s doctor will discuss the risks and benefits with you.