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Why Does Chemotherapy Cause Death? Unravelling FAQs and More

March 9, 2020

It is a complex and powerful treatment for cancer that can also have serious side effects. But does chemotherapy cause death?

While it is rare for chemotherapy to directly cause death, it can contribute to a patient’s decline in health. This increases their vulnerability to infections and other complications.

It’s important to address common concerns and misconceptions about chemotherapy. By doing so, we have accurate information and support for patients and their loved ones.

Lady in the oncology suite during a chemotherapy session.  - chemotherapy cause death

How does Chemotherapy Work?

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to target and kill rapidly dividing cells, including cancer cells. The goal of chemotherapy is to stop or slow down the growth of cancer cells and shrink tumours.

Ultimately this will improve the patient’s health and quality of life.

You may have chemotherapy drugs in various ways, including through oral pills, injections, or intravenous infusions.

Here’s how chemotherapy works:

  1. Preventing Cell Division: One of the hallmarks of cancer cells is their uncontrolled and rapid division. Chemotherapy drugs disrupt the process of cell division by interfering with the DNA or other cell components necessary for replication. This prevents cancer cells from multiplying and growing.
  2. Toxic Effect: Chemotherapy drugs are intentionally toxic to actively dividing cells. While they primarily target cancer cells, they can also affect healthy cells in the body that naturally divide quickly, such as bone marrow, hair follicles, and digestive tract cells. This is the reason for many common side effects of chemotherapy, such as hair loss, nausea, and lowered blood cell counts.
  3. Triggering Cell Death: Chemotherapy drugs can trigger a process called apoptosis, which is programmed cell death. The body uses this natural mechanism to get rid of damaged or abnormal cells. By inducing apoptosis, chemotherapy helps to eliminate cancer cells from the body.
  4. Combination Therapy: Often, multiple chemotherapy drugs combine to target cancer cells in different ways or minimize the development of drug resistance. You may have different drugs in specific sequences or schedules to enhance their effectiveness.
  5. Targeted Therapies: In addition to traditional chemotherapy, targeted therapies have emerged. These are drugs that specifically target molecules or pathways critical for the growth and survival of cancer cells. Targeted therapies aim to be more precise in their effects and potentially cause fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy.
  6. Neoadjuvant and Adjuvant Therapy: You may have chemotherapy before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy) to shrink tumours and make them more manageable for surgical removal. Or you can use them after surgery (adjuvant therapy) to target any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of recurrence.

It’s important to note that tailoring to each individual patient and their specific type and stage of cancer is often the case for chemotherapy.

The treatment plan is developed by a medical oncologist who considers factors such as the patient’s overall health, the type of cancer, its location, and the likely response to different drugs.

While chemotherapy is a powerful treatment, it can come with side effects. The medical team closely monitors patients during treatment and provides supportive care to manage and alleviate these side effects as much as possible.

The decision to undergo chemotherapy is based on a careful assessment of the potential benefits and risks, and it’s important for patients to have open and honest discussions with their healthcare team to make informed choices.

If a woman has abnormal blood tests or other ill health, she may not be suitable for a chemotherapy session till they improve.

This is because abnormal blood tests may indicate problems with the liver or kidney.

Further damage could happen to these organs following chemotherapy (since we have already established that it is quite toxic).

How many Chemotherapy sessions can you have?

The number of chemotherapy sessions you receive can vary widely depending on several factors. They include the type of cancer, the stage of cancer, your overall health, the specific chemotherapy drugs, and the treatment plan of the medical team.

In some cases, chemotherapy might involve a single session or a few sessions spaced out over a short period of time.

In other cases, it might involve multiple cycles of treatment, with each cycle consisting of several sessions over several weeks or months. It’s also common for people to have breaks between cycles to allow recovery from the effects of chemotherapy.

There is no fixed “average” number of chemotherapy sessions, as it can greatly vary from patient to patient. Tailoring is often important to each individual’s specific circumstances and needs.

The medical team will assess your response to treatment and make adjustments as necessary based on how the cancer is responding and how you are tolerating the treatment.

Chemotherapy drugs in oral and injection form

How much Chemotherapy can you have?

The amount of chemotherapy a person can receive on average also varies widely based on many factors.

They include:

  • the type of cancer,
  • the stage of the disease,
  • the specific chemotherapy drugs used,
  • the patient’s overall health,
  • and how well the patient tolerates the treatment.

Chemotherapy is often given in cycles, with each cycle consisting of several treatment sessions.

A common approach is to administer chemotherapy for a certain number of cycles, with breaks in between to allow the body to recover.

The total number of cycles a patient may undergo can range from a few to many, depending on the factors mentioned earlier.

In some cases, patients might receive only a few cycles of chemotherapy. However, in other cases, they might undergo treatment for several months or more.

The goal of chemotherapy is to effectively treat cancer while also managing the side effects and minimizing harm to the patient’s overall health.

The decisions about the amount and duration of chemotherapy come from your medical team, including oncologists and other healthcare professionals.

They will consider the individual needs and circumstances when determining the appropriate treatment plan.

Can Chemotherapy cause death?

Chemotherapy is a powerful and complex treatment that aims to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. While chemotherapy is effective in treating many types of cancer, it can also have various side effects, some of which can be severe.

However, the fear that chemotherapy itself can directly cause death is often based on misconceptions or anecdotal stories.

Let’s explore the potential effects of chemotherapy and address some of these fears:

  1. Side Effects: Chemotherapy drugs target rapidly dividing cells, which include cancer cells. But they also affect other rapidly dividing cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow, hair follicles, and digestive tract. This can lead to common side effects like fatigue, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and lowered blood cell counts. While these side effects can be uncomfortable and sometimes severe, they are generally manageable with proper medical care.
  2. Suppression of Immune System: Chemotherapy can suppress the immune system, making patients more susceptible to infections. Severe infections can be life-threatening, especially in individuals with compromised immune systems. Medical teams closely monitor patients for signs of infection and take appropriate measures to manage and prevent them.
  3. Risk of Bleeding: Chemotherapy can lower platelet counts, which can increase the risk of bleeding or easy bruising. In extreme cases, severe bleeding could be life-threatening. Patients are closely monitored, and precautions are taken to address low platelet counts.
  4. Cardiovascular Effects: Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the heart and increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. However, the likelihood of severe cardiac complications is generally lower in patients with no pre-existing heart conditions.
  5. Allergic Reactions: In rare cases, patients may experience severe allergic reactions to certain chemotherapy drugs. These reactions can potentially be life-threatening if not promptly treated.
  6. Long-Term Effects: Chemotherapy can have long-term effects on various organs and systems in the body. However, the risk of long-term complications is balanced against the potential benefits of treating the cancer.

Remember that while chemotherapy can have serious side effects, advances in medical knowledge and supportive care currently makes them minimal.

Medical teams carefully assess the risks and benefits of chemotherapy for each patient. They take into account factors such as the type of cancer, its stage, the patient’s overall health, and potential treatment alternatives.

The fear of chemotherapy-related death may stem from a lack of understanding or misinformation. It’s important for patients to have open and honest discussions with their medical team about their concerns and to make informed decisions about their treatment based on accurate information. In many cases, the potential benefits of chemotherapy in treating cancer far outweigh the risks of its side effects.

Summing Up

These are only some of the questions about this important treatment. Regarding the question: can chemotherapy cause death? This is not true, and the facts have been provided in detail above.

Chemotherapy is an important aspect of cancer treatments today, and with care, most women survive their course of therapy (though may endure quite severe side effects).

Meeting the balance is an important part of the cancer journey.

More Reading

Edited by AskAwayHealth Team


All AskAwayHealth articles are written by practising Medical Practitioners on a wide range of healthcare conditions to provide evidence-based guidance. The advice in our material is not meant to replace the management of your specific condition by a qualified healthcare practitioner.
To discuss your condition, please contact a health practitioner or reach us directly

Image source – Canva

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