First of all, what is chemo?

Chemotherapy (often referred to as “chemo”) is the most common treatment for cancer. To some extent, it is used in almost all treatment plans. Chemotherapy basically means using drugs to treat disease. When you think of it this way, taking aspirin for a headache is a form of chemotherapy. Of course, chemotherapy for cancer is much more powerful. But then, cancer is much more serious than a headache.

How does it work?

Chemotherapy works by seeking out and destroying rapidly growing and dividing cells (that’s why your hair falls out). Because cancer cells grow and divide in a disorderly and rapid manner, they are very susceptible to chemo drugs. Unfortunately, unlike surgery and radiation that target specific areas, chemotherapy affects healthy cells as well, causing many unpleasant side effects (more on that later…).

How is chemo given?

Chemotherapy, like other drugs, can be administered in a variety of ways. The most common is intravenously, usually through a central line (Broviac or medi-port) that has been surgically implanted before the start of treatment. Some chemo drugs are given orally, either in pill or liquid form. Others are given by an injection. Still others are administered to the central nervous system through a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). This is referred to as intrathecal. There are dozens of drugs currently being used to treat cancer. Your chemotherapy treatment will probably consist of more than one drug used in combination with others. This is called combination chemotherapy and is generally more effective in killing cancer cells. It also reduces the chance that you will develop a tolerance to one particular drug.

But aren’t the side effects terrible?

Yes…and no.

Most teens are concerned about the possible side effects of chemotherapy. You, and most kids, just want to get on with your lives and would really rather not be bothered with all of this. You have things to do. Unfortunately, you may have to put those things on hold for a while, until the chemo has a chance to do its thing. Everyone reacts differently to the chemo drugs. This is a function of what kinds of drugs you get, what the dosages are, your general physical condition, and sometimes your mental and emotional stamina.

The most common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue (low red blood)
  • Increased chance of infection (low white blood)
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhea/constipation
  • Increased chance of bleeding (low platelets)

Often, you will experience a cumulative effect from your chemo – it might not hit you right away but will sort of build up over time. Be sure to talk with your medical team about which side effects you can expect and how best to deal with them. There are many medications that can prevent some side effects before they happen.

What can I do about this?

To help overcome any anxiety about your chemo treatment, ask your medical team for a copy of your treatment plan.

This should include:

  • A list of the drugs to be used and dosages
  • The schedule of treatment
  • Description, timing and likelihood of side effects
  • Plans to minimize and deal with side effects

Be sure to ask as many questions as you need to about what to expect throughout your chemotherapy treatment. Understanding your treatment is the key to controlling your emotions and sense of well-being. Talking with other teens might also be helpful. Just remember – every person reacts differently and one kid’s terrible experience might not be yours. CONNECT HEREDrugs“, you can see which side effects are commonly associated with your specific drugs. Go to “Body Issues” to learn more about how to manage the side effects of chemo.