CANCER
November 13, 2008

Chemo's Side Effects

Chemotherapy for breast cancer - or any cancer - takes a toll on the body. A new study shows just how great - and widespread -- the toll is.
A new study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, identifies more clearly than previous research some of the adverse side-effects of chemotherapy in women undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Because chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, it affects not only the cancerous cells but many other types of cells in the body as well. It is when the healthy cells are damaged by the chemicals used in the treatment that the patient may experience unwanted side-effects.

...[W]omen should discuss their specific situation with a cancer specialist or oncologist before making a serious decision about chemotherapy.

The study looked at over 4,000 women, under the age of 63, who were undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. The most common causes of landing in the hospital or emergency room due to side-effects of the treatment were fever and infection. White-blood cell or platelet count, dehydration, and electrolyte disorders were other side-effects associated with chemotherapy. Overall, the study found eight significant side-effects that were not necessarily reported by other, larger-scale clinical studies.

The odds of a woman visiting the hospital or ER during chemotherapy treatment were 61%, versus 42% for women not undergoing chemotherapy. Women in chemotherapy also spent an additional $1,271 dealing with unpleasant side-effects of the therapy, as well as an additional $17,617 more on ambulatory or outpaient care than women not undergoing the treatment.

Although the present study was not a randomized, controlled study (the type that would provide the most powerful and predictive results), head author Michael Hassett notes that there are other studies in progress on the side-effects of chemotherapy which are of this sort.

Hassett cautions that women considering chemotherapy should not make the decision whether to undergo the treatment or not based solely on the results of this study. Rather, women should discuss their specific situation with a cancer specialist or oncologist before making a serious decision about chemotherapy.

The research was carried out by researchers at the Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA.

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