We have made great strides in treating cancer with chemotherapy drugs, yet myths about these medications still remain. Donna Fade, a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Brooklyn Infusion Center, helped us separate fact from fiction.
Myth: Chemo will make me sick.
While that used to be the case, patients can now take medicines before chemotherapy to prevent side effects like nausea and vomiting. Each week, Ms. Fade says she sees only one or two out of 150 patients experience nausea. And those who do usually only have it for a short period of time.
The most common chemo side effect, she says, is fatigue, which accumulates over time. “I always liken it to a prize fight,” Ms. Fade says. “The first time you get knocked down, you jump right back up. After the second or third, you still get up pretty quickly. By the time you get to the fifth or sixth knockdown, you get up more slowly — but you still get up.”
Myth: I’ll lose all my hair.
Not every chemotherapy drug causes hair loss, and some only cause hair thinning. It depends on the type of chemo you get as well as the combination of drugs. Most chemotherapy affects rapidly dividing cells in the body, like those in the hair follicle. But sometimes, patients can take targeted medicines that influence specific cells. With these drugs, the hair is rarely affected.
For patients at risk of losing their hair, scalp cooling may help. During this innovative, FDA-approved procedure, the patient is fitted with a special cold cap that diminishes blood flow to the scalp, theoretically reducing the amount of chemo that comes in contact with hair follicles. Your doctor can tell you if you’d be a good candidate for scalp cooling. It’s important to note, however, that the cap must be worn for hours at a time, and the treatment is usually not covered by insurance.
Myth: My life will be drastically interrupted while I have chemo.
“Absolutely not,” assures Ms. Fade. “Many people go to work every single day. They may have a day or two when they’re not feeling their greatest, but that could happen to anyone.” She remembers one patient who would do chemo on her Friday lunch hour and be back in the office every Monday. “She never once missed a day of work,” she recalls.
Myth: I won’t be able to have children after chemo.
Every effort is made to spare a patient’s fertility, Ms. Fade says. Men can bank and/or freeze their sperm. Women can freeze their eggs or take medications that suppress ovarian function during treatment. “Many women go on after chemotherapy to have safe pregnancies and healthy children,” Ms. Fade says.
Myth: My cancer must be really bad if my doctor ordered chemo.
Today’s chemotherapy treatments are given for many reasons and for many different types of cancer. Sometimes chemo is given to shrink a tumor before surgery. Sometimes it is given to control disease and keep a patient stable. Doctors take many factors into consideration when developing their patients’ treatment plans, so it’s no use comparing yours to anyone else’s.
Myth: Chemo is an outdated treatment. These days, it’s all about immunotherapy.
Doctors prescribe chemotherapy to stop cancer cells from dividing. Immunotherapy, which is a relatively new form of treatment, uses a patient’s immune system to fight his or her cancer. It holds exciting promise but has not yet been shown to work for all types of cancer. Chemo is still a treatment standard that doctors rely upon. If your MSK doctor prescribes it, know that you’re in good hands. “One thing that I can be certain of,” Ms. Fade says, “is if a patient is being treated at MSK, they are receiving the most up-to-date, best-possible combination of therapies for their disease.”