I'm in the middle of two sessions of high-dose Chemotherapy, but what the hell is it and why am I on it?
Chemotherapy is one of the three musketeers of treating cancer, along with surgery and radiotherapy. The phrase Chemotherapy literally means Chemical Therapy and was coined by a German physician called Paul Ehrlich while he was trying to find a cure for syphilis. It basically involves cytotoxic drugs being given to a patient usually via an intravenous drip. These drugs then spread through the body fighting cancer cells. They also have the annoying habit of fighting healthy cells as well.
The one really useful thing about Chemotherapy is that it travels everywhere and will seek out cancer cells in the blindest of alleyways, so is very useful for treating cancers which have a habit of moving about, like my testicular cancer for instance. The big downside is because it goes everywhere, healthy cells are not spared the process. It's effectively a very clever poison, but poison nevertheless. Your own personal Ben Tre. The fun list of side-effects of chemo include hair loss, vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss, change of appetite, chronic tiredness and mood swings. It's like going to a really badly run festival which you can't go home from.
Often Chemotherapy will be used in combination with surgery or radiotherapy to fight whatever cancer is there. I've had surgery both previous times I've had cancer to remove tumours. Chemo helps in reducing the size of the tumours before the operation, or making sure there's no lingering cancer cells afterwards. It's job can be like the police mopping up the drunks after a busy Friday night in a market town. There are many different chemotherapy drugs and they all have slightly different jobs, but the main thing is to kill cancer cells while leaving enough healthy cells left so you don't die. This can be all a bit hit and miss which is why immune systems are usually shot at the end of the process and need help with anti-viral medication or stem-cell therapy (which I'll be doing another blog about).
This all sounds a bit grim, is there an alternative? Well this is where it all gets a bit thorny. Type "cancer" into your friendly internet provider and you'll be bombarded with treatments which claim to do the same or better than chemo, only using herbs/flowers/sugar pills/psychic energy* * delete as appropriate. All cancer patients have to make decisions which are best for them. My decision is called "science" and I've placed a quite large bet that that is the best course of action for me. Some people genuinely find comfort and solace in alternative therapies. If it's your own time and money, I say all power to you. Cancer is a filthy horrible business and if you can find a nice relaxing space to get away from the horrors of it all, even for an hour, brilliant.
Where things aren't brilliant is when these alternative therapies start applying for state support. The NHS if you haven't noticed is having a bit of a funding crisis at the moment. So if you come to it asking for cash, your therapy better be clinically proven, not just some sugar pills given in a white washed room with an Enya CD playing in the background. Actually this applies across the board with pharma companies as well as therapy pedallers. If your drug isn't demonstrably better that what we already have, try not to hide the fact. Which is why Dr Ben Goldacre's All Trails campaign is so vital.