Chemotherapy aims at destroying cancer cells, but the problem is that it does not target cancer cells specifically. Chemotherapy is incapable of making a difference between a cancerous cell and a healthy cell. It merely targets rapidly multiplying cells. Chemotherapy treatments are in most cases toxic, as they attack cancer but in the process do some damage to normal cells, and thus creating side effects.
Medicines are called cytotoxics, which means toxic for cells in general. They do not have the capacity differentiate healthy and cancer cells, so they prevent the growth of all kind of cells that are sensitive to chemotherapy. The more a cell is sensitive to chemotherapy, the more active chemotherapy is going to be on it.
So, certain healthy cells, which are quickly renewed, such as the cells from the bone marrow (which produces blood cells), from hair, from skin, from mucous membrane of the mouth, etc., can be receptive to chemotherapy, and be destroyed in the process, leading to unwanted side-effects.
This explains the toxicity of chemotherapies, and thus the existence of many side effects. Even if these effects are frequent, they are not systematic, are moderated and are temporary. They depend on the type of medicines administered, on dosage, and on each individual’s reaction to a product, as well as of his general state of health.
Medical staff is equipped to understand and treat all kinds of the following side effects and toxicity caused by chemotherapy. The side effects include:
- Hematological Toxicity: This is responsible for anemia, thrombopenia, lymphopenias and neutropenias, which entail tiredness and risks of infections.
- Digestive Toxicity: Some kinds of chemotherapy drugs make patients nauseous, having diarrhea and vomiting, or even constipation, feeling a loss of appetite, etc.
- Effects on Mouth Mucous Membrane: Side effects include mouth dryness and ulcers, sore mouth and throat, etc.
- Loss of Hair: This is the most common side effect of chemotherapy. The medical condition, known as alopecia, depends on the type of drugs used and on the patient.
- Fertility Change: Sometimes there occurs a decrease in sexual desire, or a decrease of the fertility, in men and women.
There are other side effects like cutaneous toxicity (affects hands, feet and skin), increased predisposition to infections and general discomfort (cough, change in taste, weight gain, etc).
These side effects do not always appear simultaneously, and some can be limited or even avoided through care and medicines.