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Chemotherapy Drugs A - Z

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Cancer drugs, also called chemotherapy drugs, are part of conventional cancer treatment options. Those drugs are taken to treat various types of cancers. But before going further let’s explain the nature of cancer. The disease is a life-threatening medical condition characterized by uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells (also known as malignant cells). The malignant cells can remain in the original site or spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymphatic system to form other types of malignant tumors; this is called metastatic cancer. Depending on the organs affected, cancers are divided in many categories such as carcinoma, sarcoma, leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma as well as cancers of the central nervous system.  

From these categories include cancers diagnosed with the greatest frequency: lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer (colon and rectal cancers), skin cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, melanoma, and others. According to the National Cancer Institute, “the most common type of cancer on the list is prostate cancer, with more than 240,000 new cases expected in the United States in 2012. The cancer on the list with the lowest incidence is pancreatic cancer, with 43,920 new cases expected in 2012”. 

Some cancers are difficult to be treated, mesothelioma for instance. However, regardless of the cancer you have your chance to survive or heal increase if the cancer is diagnosed in its early stage. Among various treatment options for cancer (radiation therapy, surgical therapies and others), let’s consider chemotherapy drugs. First of all, how does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy is the most common cancer treatment method; it is used to treat different types of cancer. The chemo drugs travel through the organism to kill malignant cells or prevent the growth of cancer cells. These days, there is a variety of chemotherapy drugs which are also known as anticancer drugs or simply ‘cancer drugs’. Depending on the nature of chemotherapeutic agents, they can be called alkylating agents, Anti-metabolites, Plant alkaloids and terpenoids, Topoisomerase inhibitors, and cytotoxic antibiotics. The drugs can be administered intravenously, taken orally in the form of a pill or injected into the body cavity. But chemotherapy drugs are most of the times taken intravenously. A complete therapy is taken in cycles. Each cycle is administered every 1 to 4 weeks followed by a rest period before starting a new chemo cycle. This period of rest is important given this is a very strong treatment.

To increase the curative effects of the drugs, a combination of two or more chemo drugs may be given at a time.  The medications can be taken before or after the surgery. Chemotherapy given before surgery is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy; the therapy aims at shrinking the size of the tumor to allow the surgical removal.  Chemotherapy given after the surgery is known as adjuvant chemotherapy; in this case the therapy focuses on killing the cancer cells left after the surgery to prevent relapse. In certain circumstance, chemotherapy is combined with radiotherapy, biological therapy or surgical therapy (surgery). Chemotherapy could be the best cancer treatment ever if the drugs would not kill both cancer cells and normal cells which multiply rapidly - cells in the blood, intestinal tract, nails, hair, mouth and vagina - leading to serious adverse effects. In fact, some chemotherapy drugs affect the cells in the lungs, heart, bladder, kidneys as well as the nervous system. This can lead to even more serious side effects.  

Chemotherapy Side Effects 

Unlike radiation therapy and surgical therapy which are local treatment, chemotherapy is a systemic cancer treatment that affects the entire body. Its systematic characteristic makes it capable of causing side effects anywhere in the body. That’s why cancer patients tend to complain of various chemo adverse effects. 

The severity of chemotherapy side effects depends upon the type of drugs administered and the patient's health. The side effects can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) or permanent. Some common side effects of chemotherapy are constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, hair loss and certain blood-related symptoms such as anemia. In addition, chemotherapy agents can cause intestinal problems, loss of appetite, weight loss, nerve and muscle problems, sore mouth and gums, sore throat, dry and discolored skin, kidney and bladder damage, as well as sexuality and fertility issues. Stress and depression are also common among cancer patients. See Chemotherapy Side Effects for more details. 



1.        http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/commoncancers 


2.        American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2012. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2012. Also available online (PDF - 1,700 KB). Last accessed January 6, 2012.