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updated: 3/28/2011 1:27 PM

Chemotherapy treats various illnesses

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  • Chemotherapy, also called chemo, is a medical treatment that uses a combination of chemicals to combat illnesses.

       Chemotherapy, also called chemo, is a medical treatment that uses a combination of chemicals to combat illnesses.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer, 2003

 

You wanted to know

"What is chemotherapy all about?" asked students in Elise Diaz's fifth-grade class at O'Plaine School in Gurnee.

Chemotherapy, also called chemo, is a medical treatment that uses a combination of chemicals to combat illnesses. Chemo is used mostly to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Cancer occurs when healthy cells change and grow irregularly.

"Cancer cells are cells that have gone awry and don't die when they are supposed to," said Dr. Elaine Lee Wade at NorthShore University HealthSystem's Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview.

Doctors also use chemo to treat patients with immune system illnesses.

"Giving chemo poisons the cells, or stops them from reproducing. It doesn't kill the healthy cells, which can rebound," Dr. Wade said. "We think cancer cells are affected because they divide so quickly. Chemo hurts rapidly growing cells. Many, many different kinds of drugs are used that are designed to interfere with some cell division. Some are false building blocks for DNA that stop the cells from dividing."

During world wars I and II, the Germans launched rockets that contained chemicals called mustard gas that would explode near Allied soldiers.

At first, soldiers exposed to the gas had no symptoms. Hours later, harmful blisters would form. Doctors noticed that patients exposed to the mustard gas chemicals had lower white blood cell counts. People with cancer or altered immune systems improved when these types of chemicals were administered in controlled doses.

"For patients with rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, chemical treatment is designed to calm the immune system," Dr. Wade said. "Chemo can cure certain kinds of cancer tumors, like testicular cancer and Hodgkin's disease."

Wade said chemo can be used in patients whose cancer re-emerges after being eliminated in a prior illness. The chemo keeps the cancer in check instead of allowing it to take control.

Like most medical treatments, there can be a downside to using chemo. Because the chemicals injure the body's fastest growing cells, there can be hair loss, but healthy cells and hair will bounce back when the treatments are complete.

Chemo also can cause a loss of appetite, fatigue and nausea. Doctors can prescribe medicines to comfort patients being treated with chemotherapy.

"Chemo can be administered in a pill, intravenously or in a topical cream," Dr. Wade said. "Many, many more people have survived because of the benefits of using chemotherapy."

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