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What is Neoadjuvant Chemotherapy?

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is a form of chemotherapy given to cancer patients before they are scheduled to undergo surgery to remove a cancer or tumor. The main purpose of a neoadjuvant chemotherapy is to reduce the size of a large tumor, attempting to make the tumor small enough to prevent extensive damage to the surrounding tissues during the operation. It also helps surgeons better discern the healthy tissues from the cancerous ones, thus allowing more cancer cells to be removed during surgery.

Chemotherapy is a method of treating diseases, especially cancer, with the use of drugs or chemical substances. It's main objective is to kill cancer cells by stopping their rapid division, or prevent the recurrence of cancer in many patients. The term adjuvant, on the other hand, means an additional treatment to enhance the effect of another treatment, such as surgery. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is sometimes confused with adjuvant chemotherapy since both are used for cancer treatment. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy, however, is often given prior to the operation, while adjuvant chemotherapy is generally given after surgical removal of a tumor to prevent the cancer from coming back.

Examples of cancers which may benefit from neoadjuvant chemotherapy include breast cancer, colorectal cancer and lung cancer. In breast cancer, for example, neoadjuvant chemotherapy allows surgeons to perform a lumpectomy, where only a small incision is made to remove a breast tumor instead of doing a mastectomy, which is the complete removal of the affected breast. The former procedure brings more cosmetically acceptable results.

Drugs used for neoadjuvant chemotherapy are usually administered to cancer patients by mouth or by intravenous methods where drugs are injected directly into the patient's vein. Most chemotherapy drugs exert toxic effects on many cells inside the body, especially cells which are rapidly dividing, such as the cancer cells. Healthy cells of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT), mucous membranes, bone marrow and reproductive system are frequently affected by chemotherapy as well.

Side effects usually experienced by patients after the procedure include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, mouth sores, bleeding tendencies, hair loss and changes in menstrual cycles for women. These side effects are often expected, but they occur temporarily since healthy cells are capable of repairing themselves and resuming normal functions. Another negative side effect sometimes caused by neoadjuvant chemotherapy is immunosuppression, a condition in which the immune system becomes very weak. Patients with weak immune systems are not capable of fighting off invading organisms, thus making patients more prone to develop frequent infections.

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