Anyone who has had a friend or loved-one with cancer is often all-to-familiar with the negative side-effects of chemotherapy. Hair loss, chronic pain, nausea, dizziness and loss of appetite can cause cancer patients a lot of stress and discomfort.
Modern anti-cancer drugs are a far cry from medicine's first chemotherapy, a form of mustard gas, approved 60 years ago by the U.S.Food and Drug Administration.
Thanks in part to advances in genetic science, chemo is becoming more effective and far less grueling, and is transforming treatment for many cancer patients. The array of cancer-fighting medications is growing, and they are aided by new drugs that help treat nausea, minimize pain and boost levels of white cells to fight infection.
More than half of all people diagnosed with cancer are prescribed chemotherapy, a general term for drugs used to stop cancer cells from growing. Its advantage over surgery and radiation is that drugs can wage war on cancer cells wherever they are in the body.
Older chemotherapy drugs caused many difficult side effects because they couldn't distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells and attacked other fast-growing cells in the body, including hair and blood cells. The newer drugs are tailored to specific types of cancer and target particular types of cancer cells.
"These [new] drugs are certainly less toxic and more effective than they used to be, in some cases, dramatically more effective," said Dr. Thomas J. Smith, professor of medicine and palliative care at Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center. "A handful of cancers are controllable now that weren't controllable five 5 or 10 years ago."
Despite the advances, chemotherapy is still far from perfect, and the risk of debilitating side effects remains. Some people tolerate the drugs better than others, and some cancers respond better than others.
Suzanne Lindley, who lives in Texas, has experienced a range of side effects from chemo, from rashes to loss of feeling in her extremities.
But genetic tests are making it possible to tailor care so patients with treatable cancer receive drugs that are most likely to help them while avoiding the side effects of drugs that won't.
Drugs have limits The effectiveness of anti-cancer drugs in saving lives varies widely depending on the type of cancer, the stage of disease and other individual factors. Here are some: -- Germ cell tumors of the testes (testicular cancer) are almost always successfully treated, even when the cancer has metastasized. -- Some types of leukemia are successfully treated, but not all. -- Those with advanced lung cancer might see some benefit in longer life expectancy. --Those with metastatic breast cancer can experience higher quality of life and longer life but are not cured. -- Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be relieved, but patients don't live significantly longer. -- Chemo is not curative for some non-Hodgkins and Hodgkins lymphomas, but patients might gain some time and symptom relief.