Benefits and side-effects of chemotherapy

As the world observes February 4 as World Cancer Day, Oncologist J B Sharma demystifies chemotherapy, one of the most effective cancer treatments available today

Chemotherapy is among the most effective treatments for cancer. It involves the use of a combination of drugs that collectively attack cancer cells. Used widely across the world, chemotherapy has its own set of benefits and side-effects.


Certain types of cancers like acute leukemia, malignant lymphoma, Hodgkins disease and choriocarcinoma are completely curable when treated with the right type of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy also helps remove the residual cancer cells from the primary site, after the tumour is removed. This particular cancer treatment not only helps patients live longer, but also consistently increases the chances for survival throughout the various stages of treatment.

Often, when surgery is expected to be mutilating or not initially possible due to a tricky position of the tumour, chemotherapy is used to first shrink the size of the tumour, so that surgery is eventually possible.

Targeted therapy

In cases of advanced head, neck and cervical cancers, chemotherapy is given along with radiation for a synergistic effect. Today, however, the treatment is more targeted and the result more effective with almost no side-effects; this is known as targeted therapy. This type of therapy includes the use of monoclonal antibiotics and anti-angiogenic drugs along with oral pills and injections.

Chemotherapy inherently attacks all cells that divide rapidly. As the drugs cannot differentiate between cancer and normal cells, side-effects occur once the normal cells start getting destroyed as well.

Normal cells grow back

The most commonly hit ‘normal’ cells are those of the blood, cells in the mouth, stomach, bowels and hair follicles. These may lead to low blood counts, mouth sores, nausea, diarrhoea and/or hair loss. The side-effects depend on the types of drug combination used during chemotherapy. These effects usually do not cause any long-term harm and gradually disappear once the treatment is completed. Eventually, the normal cells grow back and the side-effects subside.

Picture credit: Jenny Mealing

However, some more persistent side-effects like intense vomiting, diarrhoea, neutropenia with fever and low platelet counts with/without bleeding must be immediately treated. In some cases, there are no side-effects post-chemotherapy, and that does not mean that the treatment is not effective; every human body has its own way of responding to chemotherapy.

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