Cancer cells divide fast. That’s how cancer spreads in your body. Chemotherapy works by attacking and destroying fast-dividing cells. That’s good because it can knock out cancer cells – but chemo also attacks other, healthy, fast-dividing cells, like hair cells. And that can cause some pretty nasty side effects.
Chemotherapy involves drug treatment. The drugs are given in cycles – so you have drug treatment for a set period and then stop the treatment for a set period before this process is repeated. The time in between drug treatments helps your body to recover from the effects of the chemo.
What drugs are used?
There are dozens of different chemo drugs, and your doctors will recommend the best ones for you. You might be given one drug or a combination, depending on the type of cancer you have. And you might be given the drugs via an IV injection or as tablets or medicine.
How long does it take?
The length of your chemo treatment will depend on the type of cancer you have and the drugs you take. It might involve daily, weekly or monthly treatment, and can last for between a few months and several years.
How will it affect me?
Chemo affects everyone differently. There’s no point denying it, though – it can be tough. Chemo can cause:
Hair loss. If this happens to you, it can be a real shock. All of your hair – head, eyebrows, eyelashes, pubes – can fall out during chemo, but it usually starts growing back a few weeks after you finish treatment. In the meantime, some people decide to show the world that bald is beautiful. Others experiment with hats and wigs. What you do is totally up to you, but you might like to talk to us about our Hair 4 U project. We can provide wigs made from real hair – and they’re so realistic no-one will ever guess those lovely locks aren’t yours. Chatting to other young people who’ve lost their hair can help too.
Tiredness. Chemo can leave you feeling totally wiped out. Even after your treatment is finished, you might feel like you’re stuck in first gear. It can be frustrating, but try and be patient. Give yourself time to recover. Eat well. Sleep often. Don’t overdo it. And let other people help you out. It can help to get some exercise too – sometimes going out for a walk can make you feel more awake.
Sickness. Some chemo drugs can make you feel rough. Anti-sickness medicine can be a big help – so tell a nurse or doctor straightaway if you feel sick. And try to eat small, frequent meals, avoid smelly food, rest after eating and get fresh air when you can. Keeping a paper bag handy isn’t a bad idea either, just in case.
Changes to fertility. Some chemo treatments can affect your chances of having kids, and this is definitely something to discuss with your doctor before receiving any treatment. You can read more about this on our page about fertility.
Mouth problems. Chemo can be a real pain in the mouth. You might get mouth ulcers or have a sore mouth and/or throat during and after chemo. Food sometimes tastes bad too. Sucking on red ice pops helps relieve pain (but only red ones – citric acid in yellow and orange ones might make your mouth worse). So does avoiding crunchy food. And you also have the perfect excuse to get plenty of ice cream down you. It’s also important to take care of your teeth and gums – so brush very carefully using toothpaste and a soft brush.
Diarrhoea. Now, we know – this isn’t a glamorous list, but knowing what might happen can help you prepare. Chemo can irritate your bowel and cause diarrhoea, but drugs are usually pretty good at controlling this.
‘Chemo brain’. It’s not a medical term, but some people say during chemo they feel spaced out, dopey and sleepy, and struggle to concentrate and remember things. If you feel like this, keep yourself safe. No driving or taking up weightlifting.
Sex and chemo. If you're having chemo or having penetrative sex with someone who is, always use a condom – even for oral sex, and even if you're using other contraception. That's because it's possible for men and women to pass on chemicals from chemo drugs during sex.
How will it work?
Chemo can be used to cure some cancers completely. It’s also used alongside other treatments, like radiotherapy. It can be used before surgery to kill cancer cells or after surgery to prevent cancer returning. And it can be used as a medicine to help you feel better if your cancer is very advanced.
Questions worth asking
Never be afraid to ask questions about your cancer. Ask, ask and ask again. And if you don’t understand the answers you get, keep asking until you do.
If your doctor recommends chemo, you might like to ask:
- How long your chemo is likely to last
- What the side effects might be, and how you can reduce them
- What the chemo is meant to achieve
- How effective it’s likely to be
- Whether any other treatments might work.