Brain and Body

8 Things that Happen in the Brain and Body During Chemotherapy

July 5, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

IV on hospital patient
Photo credit: Phil and Pam Gradwell/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The intense effects of chemotherapy drugs explained.

Although humanity has yet to see the day where a cure for cancer is discovered, we have some effective tools to help fight the disease, and chemotherapy is one of the go-to treatments.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 650,000 people receive chemotherapy annually, but the widely used treatment doesn’t come without risks. People receiving chemo are at risk of developing infections, and the treatment is notorious for coming with painful side effects.

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The American Cancer Society reports that over 100 chemotherapy drugs are currently used, and here’s how they work:

1. Chemo drugs kill cells that are in the process of splitting

Cancer spreads throughout the body as the cells go through the cell cycle, dividing themselves into two identical cells. In fact, cancer cells divide much more often than most normal cells, according to Cancer Research UK. In chemotherapy, the drugs are used to target and kill cells as they’re in the process of splitting.

2. The genes inside of cell nuclei are damaged

Chemo drugs kill cells by damaging the cell nucleus, and different types of chemo drugs damage the cells at different points of the cell cycle. Some drugs damage cells at the point of splitting, while others damage cells during the phase where they create copies of all their genes before dividing.

3. Healthy cells are killed

Unfortunately, chemo drugs aren’t smart enough to venture into the body and know which cells to kill and which healthy cells to spare. Along with the cancerous cells, healthy cells are often killed, which leads to the nasty side effects often associated with chemotherapy.

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4. Short-term side effects, like nausea, fatigue, diarrhea

During the time in which chemotherapy drugs are in the patient’s system, commonly reported side effects are nausea, diarrhea, anemia (a condition that develops when there’s a lack of red blood cells), fatigue, and infections in the mouth, according to the US National Library of Medicine.

5. Cancer patients often lose their hair

Hair follicles are constantly growing and dividing, and since some healthy cells are damaged by the chemotherapy drugs, a common side effect of chemo is hair loss. However, the damage to the healthy cells doesn’t last, so the effects usually disappear once treatment is over.

6. Drugs can be infused, swallowed, or localized

There are a few different ways to go about chemotherapy drug delivery. In most instances, the drugs are delivered with an infusion into a vein. Other chemo medications come in the form of tablets and can be swallowed, and both drug infusion or tablet swallowing enable the drugs to travel in the bloodstream and act in all parts of the body.

Another option is local chemotherapy, in which medications are injected directly into the affected body region. Then, the drugs only reach connected areas, like the brain or the membranes lining the brain and spinal cord.

7. “Chemo brain”

Chemotherapy can bring about a mental fog commonly referred to as “chemo brain.” Patients often report trouble remembering details, like names and dates, as well as forgetting things that they usually have no trouble recalling. Chemo brain can also make it tricky for patients to multitask, and they can experience a disorganized and slower thought process.

8. Mental well-being may be affected

Different people have different psychological reactions to chemotherapy, and some may experience symptoms of depression and anxiety — in some cases it can lead to panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Further, undergoing chemotherapy treatment may cause a loss of sexual interest and a reduced desire to socialize with others.

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