The vast field of Medical Oncology addresses the treatment of cancer in its various forms through drugs, hormones, chemicals and biological products. Because of the incredibly wide range of cancer types, medical oncologists must update their knowledge and approach to treatment continuously, based on the latest advances in medical science and technology.
It is important to determine the right treatment plan for each individual based on various factors – stage of cancer, extent of the damage, other medical conditions, and location within the body.
Medical Oncology is assumed as a systemic treatment as compared to radiation oncology that only focuses on treating a particular part of the body. Chemotherapy, drugs and certain other related therapies such as hormone therapies and biological response modifiers are used in medical oncology for treating cancers.
Hormone Therapy : This therapy is considered as a systemic treatment and is also known as endocrine-based therapy. Hormone therapy interferes with certain hormones (natural body chemicals) that help in stimulating the growth of the cancer. Endometrial, breast, ovarian and prostate are certain types of cancer that are characteristically sensitive to hormones. The hormone therapy drugs are structured chemically so as to interfere and prevent the development of such types of cancer. This therapy can be combined with radiation therapy or can also be used alone.
Chemotherapy : This therapy may be given before or after surgery. Certain types of drugs are used for destroying the cancer cells. These drugs can be injected into a vein (intravenously) that enters into the bloodstream and travels through the entire body. Chemotherapy can also be administered in pill form. The treatment regimen and the type of cancer determines the duration of the treatment. This therapy is usually given in cycles so as to provide a rest period in between the treatments
Common side effects caused by traditional chemotherapy drugs include:
Fatigue. Fatigue (a persistent sense of tiredness or exhaustion) is the most common symptom reported by patients receiving chemotherapy
Pain. Chemotherapy can cause pain for some people, including headaches, muscle pain, stomach pain, and pain from nerve damage, such as burning, numbness, or shooting pains (most often in the fingers and toes). Pain usually diminishes over time, but some people may have symptoms for months or years after chemotherapy has finished due to permanent damage to the nerves.
Sores in the mouth and throat. Chemotherapy can damage the cells that line the mouth and throat. The sores (also called mucositis) usually develop five to 14 days after receiving chemotherapy. Although the sores may become infected, they usually heal completely when treatment is finished. Patients receiving chemotherapy who have unhealthy diets and/or poor dental hygiene increase their risk of mouth and throat sores.
Diarrhea. Certain chemotherapy causes loose or watery bowel movements. Preventing diarrhea or treating it early helps a person avoid becoming dehydrated (the condition when the body does not get the amount of fluids it needs) or developing other problems.
Nausea and vomiting. Chemotherapy can cause nausea (an urge to vomit or throw up) and vomiting—a risk that depends on the type and dose of chemotherapy. With appropriate medications, nausea and vomiting can be prevented in nearly all patients.
Constipation. Chemotherapy—as well as some drugs to treat nausea and vomiting, pain, depression, diarrhea, and high blood pressure—may cause constipation (the infrequent or difficult passage of stool). Patients may also increase their risk of constipation by not drinking enough fluids, not eating balanced meals, or not getting enough exercise.
Blood disorders. Chemotherapy affects the production of new blood cells in the bone marrow, the spongy, inner mass of the bone. Symptoms and complications arising from low blood counts are among the most common side effects of chemotherapy.
Nervous system effects. Some drugs cause nerve damage, resulting in one or more of the following nerve- or muscle-related symptoms:
- Weakness or numbness in the hands and/or feet
- Weak, sore, tired, or achy muscles
- Loss of balance
- Shaking or trembling
- Stiff neck
- Visual problems
- Walking problems
- Difficulty hearing
These symptoms usually improve when the chemotherapy dose is lowered or treatment is stopped.
Appetite loss. People receiving chemotherapy may eat less than usual, not feel hungry at all, or feel full after eating only a small amount.
Hair loss. Patients receiving chemotherapy may lose hair from all over the body, gradually or in clumps. This side effect most often starts after the first several weeks or rounds of chemotherapy and tends to increase one to two months into treatment.