Myths About Chemotherapy: Busted!

By Dr. Devavrat Arya in Medical Oncology , Cancer Care / Oncology

Nov 07 , 2016 | 4 min read


For almost half a century, cancer chemotherapy has played a crucial role in the ongoing battle against cancer. But despite chemotherapy’s importance as a vital medical advancement, its myths and misunderstandings abound.

Indeed, most of us have very little knowledge of how the process works. Our doctors/oncologists have made enormous strides over the last couple of decades to minimise the side effects of chemotherapy.

Let us get the myths busted about chemotherapy: 

Myth: Chemotherapy is painful.

No, Chemotherapy never causes pain, as many patients are afraid of the pain they believe chemo will cause.  

Myth: When my doctor wants me to begin chemotherapy, it must signify that I am terminally sick.

No, it is not so, not only chemotherapy is prescribed for palliative settings but also in adjuvant and neoadjuvant settings where the chance of care is high.  A lot of patients receiving chemotherapy will eventually be cured and disease-free for the rest of their life.

The type of chemotherapy prescribed and frequency of administration depends on the type of cancer and is not indicative of a patient’s outlook. In fact, chemotherapy is often used as a preventive measure to stop cancer from recurring at a later date and improve the odds of a cure.

Myth: I am going to be sick and nauseous for a long time.

While nausea can be a problem for some people, it has been limited as a major side effect in the past several years. We are now at the point where illness and nausea are a rarity. New agents are able to effectively control the symptoms of nausea, thereby allowing the patients to leave the hospital almost directly after chemotherapy treatment.

Myth: I will lose all my hair once I start chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy will not always cause hair loss in patients. Though it will involve drugs that cause hair to thin as well as fall out, surprisingly, many people may not experience hair loss. But for those patients who do suffer from hair thinning or total loss, it will grow back (about 1/4 to 1/2 inch a month is typical) after a treatment course is complete.

In some cases, re-growth begins before the treatment is completed. If the chemotherapy regimen is going to cause hair loss, patients can plan accordingly by manufacturing wigs of their own choice till their hair grows back.

Myth: Chemotherapy will affect my entire life.

The drastic side effects that most individuals experienced many years ago are not as common today, thanks to medical advancements.

Myth: Immunity is compromised during chemotherapy.

Several patients assume their immune systems are severely compromised during treatment and that they are in great danger from different infections. “From a medical point of view, there is a reduction in the white blood cell count. This reduction, however, is not significant enough, nor does it occur for a long period of time to put a patient at a greater risk of viral infections or fevers.

Myth: I can’t get pregnant during chemotherapy.

This is a big one. It is a misconception that I find necessary to address with patients at the very beginning of their treatment cycle. Many women and their partners assume that they cannot conceive during chemotherapy and believe that they are a short time into treatment.

Pregnancy can be an enormous complication during chemo, so extra vigilance is recommended.And it’s not just women who think they’re infertile. Chemotherapy does not necessarily kill sperm cells, so men should not forgo regular birth control methods when they are undergoing chemo.

However, there are ways to deal with these issues. For instance, women can harvest eggs, and men can bank sperm for later use. If having children after treatment is important to you, speak to a specialist about your reproductive options before beginning chemotherapy.

Myth: The cure is worse than the disease.

Many people are under the impression that chemotherapy will significantly reduce their quality of life for an extended period of time. We meet more and more cancer survivors and encounter so many more individuals who continue working and living their lives with only a few small concessions to their treatment.

Chemo can take an emotional, mental and physical toll, but it is not as devastating as many patients assume. Furthermore, treatments have become so effective that “we have turned cancer into a chronic disease rather than an acute disease that kills.

Chemotherapy drugs are administered now in many different ways, depending on a patient’s condition and needs. Most chemo is given intravenously through a needle or catheter, but sometimes chemo drugs can be given with a simple shot or even in a pill or liquid form that you can take at home.

Myth: My cancer is God’s will, and there’s nothing anyone can do to change the course of my disease.

This is a common cultural belief, but in fact, getting treatment for cancer may be the very thing that will save your life. “We have chemotherapies now that really do change the course of the disease and can save lives — not just prolong life.

Chemotherapy can be a tough slog for those who must endure it, but the myths about the treatment engender a fear that has little basis in reality. Most of the public seems to think of chemotherapy much as it was in the ’50s or ’60s and are unaware of the immense changes that the process has undergone.