Chemotherapy is by far the most commonly used treatment procedure for cancer. It is used to cure cancer and also to palliate the symptoms and pain in a patient who cannot be cured of cancer. Some cytotoxic and anti-neoplastic drugs are used as the chemotherapeutic agents are incorporated in chemotherapy. The therapy can go hand in hand with other forms of treatment like radiation therapy (chemo-radiotherapy), with the exposure to light (photo-chemotherapy) and surgery.
The term ‘chemotherapy’ was initially referred to as the treatment of non-oncological procedures including the antibiotics or antibacterial chemotherapy. The broad definition of the word is “therapy using chemical substances especially in the treatment of cancer”. However, the uses of a chemotherapeutic drug is not limited to the treatment of cancer. The first ever modern-age chemotherapeutic agent was called arsphenamine. It is a compound of arsenic discovered in 1909 and was then used in the treatment of a Sexually Transmitted Disease called syphilis. The first use of a chemotherapeutic agent was an accidental discovery in the 20th Century during the World War. The mustard gas used in warfare was found to contain a potential suppressant of blood production.
Use in the treatment of cancer
There are two ways in which chemotherapeutic treatment can be given:
- Single-agent: With just one therapeutic drug at a time.
- Poly-chemotherapy: With a combination of different chemotherapeutic agents.
Uses apart from treatment of cancer
There are some chemotherapeutic agents that can be used in the treatment of other ailments as well including:
- Spondylitis: Inflammation of parts of the vertebrae
- Crohn Syndrome: A type of inflammatory bowel disease.
- Psoriasis: A chronic skin disease.
- Psoriatic arthritis: Arthritis that stems up from Psoriasis.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: Inflammation of joints resulting in pain and sometimes, loss of mobility.
- Scleroderma: Another skin disease.
- Multiple Sclerosis: inflammation causing brain and nervous damage.
- Systemic lupus: An autoimmune disease damaging the immune system along with the heart, kidney, liver, lungs, blood vessels and the entire nervous system.
The conventional therapy incorporates the act of damaging the uncontrollably growing cancerous cells. It also damages or stops the abnormal growth of cells that are non-carcinogenic. For example, abnormal cell growth in the digestive tract, bone marrow and the hair follicles.
There are quite a few side-effects of chemotherapy including:
- Myelosuppression: Also known as bone marrow suppression, it is an abnormal decrease in the production of cells that produce leukocytes(for immunity) and erythrocytes(for carrying oxygen in the blood)
- Immunosuppression: The decrease in the efficiency of the immune system at large.
- Alopecia: The medical term for abnormal hair loss issues.
- Mucositis: Inflammation of the mucous membrane in the digestive tract.
The search is on for non-toxic chemotherapeutic agents that will damage only the target cells and keep the healthy cells unharmed. This is going to be a major breakthrough in the history of Oncology. Once the non-toxic therapeutic agents are invented (one has already been invented and others are expected to follow suit) and distributed in the market, cancer patients will be free from all the side effects of chemotherapy.