Chemotherapy is probably the most widely known form of cancer treatment out there. But a lot of its notoriety comes from the fact that it has some serious side effects, too.
Here’s why chemo is still considered a standard form of cancer treatment—even though the side effects can be so awful.
Why Do We Use Chemo To Treat Cancer?
Chemo is the most common form of cancer treatment. I usually describe it as medicine that treats cancer by killing fast-growing cells.
Cell growth gets halted by chemo in one of three ways, reports CureSearch for Children’s Cancer:
- The cell material needed to divide is not copied.
- Key enzymes or nutrients for the cell’s survival are replaced or eliminated.
- The cell is triggered to self-destruct.
Chemo is given to patients for several reasons, according to the National Cancer Institute:
- To cure cancer
- To lessen the likelihood of its return
- To stop or slow its growth
- To shrink tumors
Why Does Chemo Cause Side Effects?
Chemo drugs target any cells that grow rapidly and divide, reports the American Cancer Society. They don’t discriminate between cancer cells and healthy cells.
Healthy cells that divide quickly—such as bone marrow cells that form new blood cells or hair follicle cells—get damaged by chemo, which causes side effects.
But because new cells are constantly being made, some side effects like nausea or hair loss are short term and go away after treatment.
While cancer cells grow quickly, other cells of the body may also be growing quickly, especially in kids who haven’t finished going through puberty.
Chemo can damage these cells and prevent them from developing normally, which can cause late effects. This means effects aren’t experienced until years later when the child is older.
What Factors Determine How To Treat Childhood Cancer?
Right now, most patients who start chemo do so because we’re trying to kill the cancer cells. Unfortunately, other cells that are growing quickly are killed as well.
Some newer therapies target a specific abnormality in cancer cells. Those kinds of therapies tend to have fewer side effects. But for many kinds of cancer, these targeted therapies haven’t yet been developed.
What Are Some Chemo Side Effects?
There are different kinds of chemo drugs, and they all have their own potential side effects.
Hair loss, or alopecia, is probably one of the more noticeable physical side effects of chemo.
Mucositis—a painful irritation in the digestive tract—is another issue that chemo drugs can cause.
And bone marrow suppression is a big issue for a lot of cancer patients who are undergoing chemo.
Some chemo drugs can cause problems with how the heart pumps.
They can sometimes damage the liver or kidneys, too. Most of the time, those issues get better after treatment, but sometimes these side effects can be prolonged.
Chemo can sometimes cause learning difficulties as well.
Are Chemo Side Effects Different In Kids Vs. Adults?
With chemo, the biggest difference between kids and adults has to do with growth issues. Once you’re done growing, the side effects from chemotherapy won’t affect physical development as much.
I would say that, in general, kids tend to tolerate the side effects of chemo better than adults. This is usually because kids are healthier overall and haven’t had as many stresses on their bodies.
Most kids haven’t already struggled with illnesses that are common in adults—like heart disease, diabetes, or kidney problems—so their bodies bounce back more quickly.
So, as far as treating cancer is concerned, this means that kids can often tolerate stronger treatments without as many side effects.