Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What is adjuvant chemotherapy?

After surgery to remove a maligant tumor, often in the breast or colon or bladder, traces of cancer cells can still remain. In part this is because the surgical removal procedure (resection) is imperfect, possibly leaving traces of cancer cells behind, but also because cancer cells often break away from the original site of the tumor and settle in other parts of the body (a phenomenon known as metastasis). Without the technology to identify whether there are remnants of cancer cells left in the patient, which can quickly proliferate again and develop into multiple tumors, the usual recourse is to take "radiotherapy" or "chemotherapy". In the case of chemotherapy, because it's in addition to surgery, it is called "adjuvant", meaning that it's taken in conjunction with or in addition. If there is also radiation treatment, this is called "chemoradiotherapy," which is quite a mouthful to say. What is chemotherapy exactly? It's simply a course of treatment which involves patient uptake of one or more chemical compounds that have been formulated to kill cancer cells. Because the cancer cells may be systemic, that is, distributed in different parts of the body, the therapy needs to be system-wide also. Therefore, chemotherapy is often dosed via an "infusion" injection or intravenous drip. Unfortunately, because the chemicals are toxic enough to also harm normal cells, the treatment can also cause side effects. Patients frequently experience nausea, hairloss, weakness. To some extent, fasting (by not eating food) for extended periods relieve some side effects.

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