There’s no question that getting diagnosed with cancer can be a frightening, life-altering experience. But, with modern treatment, many people become strong cancer survivors.
Doctors have three main weapons against cancer: radiation, surgery and systemic therapies that include chemotherapy, immunotherapy and biologicals.
AdventHealth Manchester’s oncology clinic, which opened in fall 2018, is bringing chemotherapy services closer to home for thousands of Kentuckians.
Utpal Bhanja, MD, who leads the clinic, says there are a number of barriers preventing patients who could benefit from chemotherapy from receiving it. The biggest, though, is shifting common limiting beliefs about cancer.
It’s our mindset, he says. More specifically, many experience a lack of hope, and a belief that treatment won’t work.
“The diagnosis of cancer can be disturbing, but it’s not a death sentence,” said Dr. Bhanja, who is board certified in hematology (the study of diseases of the blood) and oncology (the study of cancer).
The likely outcome of a cancer patient depends on the type of cancer and when it is caught, but treatment is available for all patients. That includes both medical treatment like chemotherapy and surgery as well as mental and spiritual counseling, he says.
The first step in any fight against cancer is education. Before you can decide what treatments are right for you, you have to know about them.
How Chemotherapy Works
Modern medicine stumbled onto chemotherapy thanks to a terrifying weapon: mustard gas. During World War II, an accidental spill of this gas aboard an American ship led to the tragic poisoning of thousands of Italians.
The doctor who investigated the accident noticed something important. The people who’d survived had very low numbers of white blood cells, which are part of the immune system. Cancer is caused by uncontrolled cell growth, and he wondered if the chemicals in mustard gas would stop the division of some cancer cells.
Though it had harsh side effects, the medicine that came from mustard gas did slow tumor growth.
There’s been plenty of chemotherapy advances since the 1940s, Dr. Bhanja says. The overall approach remains the same: by killing fast-dividing cells, chemotherapy can interrupt tumor growth. But it also kills fast-dividing healthy cells, like hair cells, which is why hair loss is often a side effect of chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is what doctors call a “systemic” treatment, meaning it affects your whole body. Yes, it’s true: Chemotherapy can cause unpleasant side effects. But they’re temporary, Dr. Bhanja says.
“If you can go through a few months of chemotherapy, you may have a better quality of life for a few years afterward,” he says.
When Is Chemotherapy Used?
Chemotherapy is often used either before or after surgery to reduce the size of a tumor and prevent it from coming back. Chemotherapy is commonly used in this way for the following cancers:
How effective chemotherapy can be depends on whether these cancers have spread. But chemotherapy can also help get rid of cancer cells that are around the tumor, too. For this reason, it’s often used after surgery if tests reveal cancer cells have spread beyond the tumor.
Debunking Cancer Treatment Myths
There are a number of myths about chemotherapy and other cancer treatments that prevent people from getting help, Dr. Bhanja says. Here are a few top ones:
1. Chemotherapy is worse than cancer.
While it comes with side effects, chemotherapy has been shown to save lives. For example, survival rates from childhood leukemia have risen from about 10 percent in the 1960s to 90 percent today, thanks in part to advances in chemotherapy.
And side effects are not as bad as they used to be, Dr. Bhanja says. Medications given alongside chemotherapy now cut down on nausea and vomiting, he says.
2. Cancer spreads through the air during surgery.
This belief is common but untrue; cancer doesn’t spread because it’s exposed to air. People may feel worse after surgery, but it’s normal to feel this way during recovery. In addition, surgery can reveal more cancer than was expected, but it was already there beforehand (not all cancer appears on each scan or X-ray).
At the same time, chemotherapy is far from a silver bullet. When the harm of chemotherapy outweighs the benefits it brings, Dr. Bhanja counsels against it.
Any good cancer doctor can give patients the right type of chemotherapy, he says.
“But what makes a good oncologist is knowing when not to give it,” Dr. Bhanja said.
That said, chemotherapy can still be used in people whose cancer has spread around their body — and may be incurable as a result — to reduce the tumors’ size and give the person a longer and higher-quality life.
Finding an Ally in Your Cancer Journey
For Dr. Bhanja, cancer is personal. As a teenager, he watched his 11-year-old sister die of cancer.
“That personally touched me,” he says.
Cancer can make you feel as if you’re alone. But you’re not. Manchester residents have a new cancer treatment option that’s close to home.