For a basic overview of cancer, please refer to our previous article on “Learn About Cancer and How to Reduce Risks”, in this article we will go over the generals of chemotherapy, the side effects of chemotherapy, and some ways to naturally manage these unwarranted side effects. Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses powerful drug(s) to attack rapidly dividing cells in the body. It can be used with other treatments, such as radiation therapy or surgery, or by itself depending on the type and stage of cancer that the doctor is treating. The side effects caused by many chemotherapy drugs are very severe and can be debilitating to the patients. Nevertheless, since its discovery back in the early 20th century, it has been effective in many cases of cancer and its benefits have been weighed against its risks by doctors prior to the initiation of therapy. [1,2,3]
History of Chemotherapy
The discovery of chemotherapy has been dated back to the early 20th century during World War II. The mustard gas has been used as a type of biological weapon in warfare that caused the air to become hard to breathe, burn the eyes, and caused blisters on the skin when in contact. Scientists found out that the poisonous gas was causing toxicity in the bone marrows to obstruct the development of blood cells. As a means to develop more effective weapons and also protective methods to counter the poisonous gas, scientists were working with many chemicals related to mustard gas and nitrogen mustard ended up being discovered to work well in lymphoma, which is a type of cancer. After World War II, the first type of chemotherapy discovered was known as alkylating agents which damages the DNA’s double helix structure in the rapidly growing cancer cells to kill them off. 
Different Types of Chemotherapy
Some of the major types of chemotherapy differentiated according to their class and pharmacology include alkylating agents, antimetabolites, plant alkaloids, and antitumor antibiotics.[4,5] As mentioned previously, alkylating agents were one of the first discovered chemotherapy and they work directly on the DNA to prevent cell division. Antimetabolites work by disguising as proteins to get the cancer cells to consume them for energy, but they provide no nutritional value so the cells eventually starve to death. As the name implies, plant alkaloids are derived from plants and are considered to be cell cycle-specific drugs that block cell division. Lastly, antitumor antibiotics are different from regular antibiotics used for infections, instead, they work by preventing RNA synthesis and causes genetic material of the DNA to uncoil, thus obstructing cell reproduction.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
One of the most well-known perils of chemotherapy is the side effects it causes. These side effects can range from mild to severe as well as common to late development. [3,4] Some of the common side effects of chemotherapy may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, loss of appetite, tiredness, fever, mouth sores, pain, constipation, easy bruising, and bleeding. [3,4] These side effects are considered to be easily preventable and tend to go away after the chemotherapy ends. On the other hand, some of the more rare but late developing side effects may include lung tissue injury, heart issues, sterility, kidney problem, nerve injury, and recurring cancer.[3,4]
Natural Management of Chemotherapy Side Effects
As mentioned previously, chemotherapy could be a highly effective treatment for cancer depending on the type and stage of the cancer; however, the side effects of chemotherapy are very daunting for many patients. There are some natural complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) that can help patients cope with some of the chemotherapy induced side effects; however, it is important to be aware beforehand that some of these natural methods could interfere with cancer treatment, so it is important to discuss with your doctors before using them. For example, ginger is frequently used by chemotherapy patients to relieve nausea in patients; however, it could cause blood thinning. Acupressure is another common therapy used in traditional Chinese medicine that could reduce acute or delayed nausea episodes. Zinc could help with preventing taste changes. Honey is said to be useful in delaying the onset of oral mucositis, which are mouth sores. Some patients might experience neuropathy, which is nerve pain or numbness, from chemotherapy and acupuncture should offer some effectiveness in reducing peripheral neuropathy. A Mayo Clinic study suggested that using ginseng could help reduce fatigue in chemotherapy patients. Overall, there are many types of complementary and natural methods in helping patients cope with chemotherapy side effects; however, they might cause some interactions to certain patients depending on the circumstances, so it is a good idea to discuss these natural methods with your doctors before attempting them.
Lastly, this article is not meant to treat, diagnose, or prevent any disease; it is for informational purposes only so make sure to consult with your physician and pharmacist before starting any new medications, medical food, or supplements.
- Selby, Karen. “Key Statistics on Chemotherapy Treatment, Costs, and Survival (2020).” Mesothelioma Center – Vital Services for Cancer Patients & Families, https://www.asbestos.com/treatment/chemotherapy/statistics/
- ACS team. “Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy.” American Cancer Society, 12 June 2014, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-chemo.html
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Chemotherapy.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 5 Mar. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/chemotherapy/about/pac-20385033
- Alan Carter. “Chemotherapy: What It Is, What to Expect, Side Effects, and Outlook.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 20 Aug. 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/158401
- NIH NCI staff. “Types of Chemotherapy Drugs.” Types of Chemotherapy Drugs | SEER Training, https://training.seer.cancer.gov/treatment/chemotherapy/types.html
- Felson, Sabrina. “Can Natural Remedies Help Ease Cancer Drug Side Effects.” WebMD, WebMD, 8 Nov. 2020, https://www.webmd.com/cancer/cancer-natural-remedies-side-effects
- Wong, Cathy. “Natural Ways to Counter the Side Effects of Chemotherapy.” Verywell Health, 13 Dec. 2019, https://www.verywellhealth.com/chemo-side-effects-natural-remedies-88901