The Dangers of Chemotherapy
Medically Reviewed by Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Chemotherapy is commonly prescribed to treat most cancers, but, according to the American Cancer Society, even doctors are careful not to describe this treatment as a cure. Because chemotherapy cannot target only cancer cells, its toxic chemicals also destroy healthy cells. Although chemotherapy can provide some relief for some types of cancers, the decision to partake is this treatment should not be taken lightly because it also presents dangers.
Chemotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells, which is why is it used to treat cancer, but many other types of cells in the body also divide rapidly. The cells that make up the lining of the intestines are rapidly dividing, making them susceptible to damage by chemotherapy agents. This results in the frequently reported side effects of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation.
Cells inside hair follicles are also rapidly dividing, and when chemotherapy kills these cells, hair loss results. Although not medically dangerous, this side effect is often the most feared by patients and can cause emotional distress.
Blood is made up of three types of cells: red blood cells (carry oxygen), white blood cells (provide immunity) and platelets (responsible for clotting). Bone marrow, the thick fluid contained in bones, is continually producing new blood cells. Chemotherapy treatment can cause bone marrow suppression, which means that the ability to produce these new cells is inhibited, resulting in reduced immunity, anemia, lack of energy and uncontrollable bleeding.
In addition to temporary side effects, chemotherapy can result in permanent damage to the body. The organs and cells involved with reproduction are especially susceptible to damage by chemotherapy. The ovaries are responsible for releasing eggs as well as producing and secreting hormones that are essential to a woman's fertility and sex drive. Chemotherapy, especially in women over the age of 30, according to the American Cancer Society, can cause a patient to enter into early menopause, resulting in infertility. For men, chemotherapy can permanently affect their sperm and the organs responsible for producing new sperm, resulting in permanent infertility.
Some chemotherapy medications, such as those that belong to the antracycline class of drugs, can cause permanent damage to the muscle cells in the heart. This can affect the heart's ability to effectively pump blood through the body, resulting in dizziness and erratic heartbeat and even leading to congestive heart failure.
Chemotherapy can also result in permanent nerve damage, typically seen as a peripheral neuropathy. These chemotherapeutic agents can cause damage to the lungs and kidneys, and they can have a permanent effect on the senses, including hearing, vision, smell and taste.
In addition to helping treat some forms of cancer, chemotherapy is also carcinogenic, meaning IT HAS THE ABILITY TO CAUSE CANCER ITSELF! Cancer cells are cells that have lost their ability to regulate their growth. As chemotherapy destroys cells, including healthy cells, it disrupts the ability of cells to divide normally. Secondary cancer may surface months--or even years--after treatment, according to Caring4Cancer. The most common types of cancers to result from chemotherapy treatments are lymphomas and leukemias, according to the American Cancer Society.