The practice of utilizing chemical therapy (Chemotherapy or Chemo) for the treatment of cancer began in the 1940’s and remains a fundamental treatment for many cancer types. Concerns over Germany’s devastating use of mustard gas during World War I, led two pharmacologists from the Yale School of Medicine, Louis S. Goodman and Alfred Gilman, to discover nitrogen mustard, as an effective treatment for cancer. Given the poisonous origin of chemotherapy, patients receiving these agents experienced severe side-effects that produced limitations on the doses and the benefits of the treatment. The ability to manage these toxicities and their negative side effects became crucial to the future success of cancer chemotherapy.
Some of the more common side effects such as; fatigue, pain, mouth and throat sores, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, blood and nervous system disorders, often led caregivers to develop new treatment management protocols in an attempt to off-set the negative effects of the treatments. Side effects happen when chemotherapy damages healthy cells as well as unhealthy cancerous cells. Research over the past 30 years has led to the discovery of medications that help alleviate the magnitude of the negative effects of chemotherapy. Doctors are devising ways to increase the uptake and concentration of chemotherapy in the specific tumor and new methods of combining treatments to improve their effectiveness.
“Chemotherapy has dramatically improved in the last decade,” George R. Simon, MD, FACP, FCCP, director of thoracic oncology at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, recently said in an interview with WebMD. “There has been a dramatic change in our ability to minimize side effects over the last few decades. Modern chemotherapy drugs are more effective and generally less toxic.” Newer therapies typically aim for targets that are specific to cancer cells and do not occur, or are rare, in healthy cells. These recent advances have made it possible to target specific cancerous cells without affecting healthy cells making the treatment more suitable for certain cancers. But while the targeted chemotherapy revolution has arrived, limitations still exist.
Other forms of targeted treatments and immunotherapy are evolving rapidly and are exciting patients and care givers alike, but with hundreds of chemotherapy treatments still available and effective for use, Chemotherapy still plays a useful role in treating cancer. “Whether used alone or in combination with next-generation treatments, chemotherapy will remain a mainstay of cancer therapy for the foreseeable future.”